Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly begs White House not to require COVID-19 tests for domestic travel

Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly begs White House not to require COVID-19 tests for domestic travel

‘Such a mandate would be counterproductive, costly, and have serious unintended consequences…’ Kelly said.

Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly is asking the White House not to impose COVID-19 testing requirements for flying within the United States following the new Biden administration’s restrictions on international travel.

Kelly sent a letter to the White House Tuesday doubling down on comments the Dallas-based CEO made last month when announcing the company’s $3.1 billion loss, the first financially negative year since 1972. The letter, released Wednesday by the airline, was co-signed by the heads of Southwest’s employee unions.

“We believe such a mandate would be counterproductive, costly, and have serious unintended consequences, including for millions of people who have travel needs but may not have access to testing resources and for the millions of people whose livelihoods depend on a stable air travel industry,” Kelly wrote in the letter.

Emirates Airlines, based in Dubai, flies out of DFW International Airport and has the world’s largest fleet of long-haul jets.

Several officials in the Biden Administration have confirmed talks about requiring passengers to test negative for COVID-19 before getting on a commercial airplane.

President Joe Biden’s new administration is grappling with high coronavirus rates and new, more contagious variants of the disease that threaten to worsen the pandemic just as the population starts to get vaccinated against the virus. These new problems come after a tense presidential campaign that promised steps to fight the COVID-19 virus that has devastated the nation’s economy and, in particular, the travel sector.

Already, new appointees have instituted testing requirements for international travelers that include quarantine requirements when entering the United States and this week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began telling the public that wearing two masks would lower the risk of spreading COVID-19.

Kelly has been among the most vocal airline CEOs in pushing back against a domestic testing requirement for travel. Airline leaders admitted last month that international testing protocols hurt demand, but they accepted the steps to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Southwest’s CEO is also taking on a more vocal role after being selected as the chairman for the trade group that represents the nation’s largest carriers, Airlines 4 America.

Airlines 4 American has noted that airplanes were less than half full on average last week, despite fewer planes in the air than before the pandemic and fares near record lows.

Overall, airline passenger traffic is still down about 70% compared to 2019 and Kelly said last month that revenue would need to double before the airline would stop losing money.

Testing all passengers flying within the United States would stretch an already constrained testing system, Kelly said. It could also require more interactions between passengers and staff members, he said.

“Most urgently, a nationwide testing requirement would once again put Southwest jobs at risk, undermining a nearly year-long effort to develop and implement the science-based protocols and procedures that make it possible to continue our operations safely,” Kelly wrote.

Southwest has received just over $5 billion in government grants and loans through two stimulus bills aimed at supporting airline jobs. Because of those grants, Southwest has promised not to furlough any workers or cut salaries at least through the end of 2021, but another hit from domestic testing would put the airline into an unanticipated situation.

Already, Southwest and the airline industry are only looking at a modest recovery in 2021.

“We recently pushed our estimate for a recovery into 2022, and that really only covers domestic flying,” said George Ferguson, an airline industry analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence. “I think we’ll get above the level we were at last summer, but maybe only by 5% or 10%.”


Melody Meadows

Based in Euless, Texas, Melody Meadows is a Chief Editor at Business Journal.  Previously  She worked for Crain Media and Yahoo News.  Ms. Meadows is a graduate of University of Texas at The University of Texas at Austin. Ms. Meadows started working for Business Journal in 2020.  She covers business, government, politics and stories about economics.