By John Flett
Opinion: As Borders Open, the Travel Industry Must Create A Seamless Experience for All Travelers
Since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been a deserved domestic focus on dealing with the immediate Covid-19 outbreaks within individual countries. This resulted in the implementation of travel restrictions and the closing of borders to non-essential international travel.
Recently Reuters reported that the U.S. will reopen its borders on Nov. 8 to fully vaccinated passengers from 33 countries. With this in mind, I thought I would share my recent experience of travelling to Los Angeles as an international traveller.
It should be noted that the processes undertaken apply to the time period in which I traveled — late September through early October — and may have changed since. Of course, the relevant websites should be checked for the latest restrictions and requirements.
Firstly I was able to travel to the U.S. as a U.K. passport holder without an exemption as I had been in Canada for over 14 days. Departing from Montreal meant that a U.S. customs pre-clearance took place prior to boarding the aircraft so no formalities were conducted upon arrival into LAX.
To board the flight a Covid-19 test was required within three days of the day of departure. The U.S. is generous with this timeframe as other countries may stipulate a time limit for the test of 72-hours prior to the originally scheduled flight departure. This highlights the inconsistent approach passengers may encounter and can become problematic if traveling on a late-night departure, as it reduces the available time for testing.
For example, if a passenger’s flight is at 7 p.m. on a Friday, the passenger could board a flight to the U.S. with a negative test that was taken any time on Tuesday or after. For countries with a 72-hour time limit, the test may realistically only be taken from Wednesday morning. The three-day rule assists with the time available to receive test results especially if passengers opt for the allowable, and cheaper, antigen test with results in 24-hours rather than the more expensive PCR test.
Much has been made about the disparate travel restrictions that individual countries and regions have initiated in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Airlines and tourism bodies have been advocating for a consistent, single digital approach to facilitate the efficient movement of travelers.
However, until there is an international consensus, travelers will be required to spend a considerable amount of time and do a significant amount of research to ensure compliance. For example, for this particular trip, the Covid-19 certificate issued in the province of Quebec was not deemed acceptable to U.S. authorities as it was not in English or Spanish, and the Canadian government had yet to initiate a national Covid-19 certificate or passport. Fortunately, as I had been vaccinated in the U.K., the NHS app was acceptable, and there were no issues.
All documentation — including the required vaccination status — was thoroughly checked by the airline staff. To travel to the U.S., an attestation is required for each passenger and Los Angeles county also required an online form to be completed. Thankfully an error with the names on the Covid-19 test result documentation was picked up and amended by the test provider on the day of travel. A passenger’s full name as is written on their passport is one of the requirements on the documentation, but the test provider’s website had not made this clear, and the online form did not reinforce this.
Full mask compliance was monitored and enforced within the airport and onboard the flight. Regular announcements were made to ensure that passengers understood that the mask requirement was a Transport Canada regulation. Overall the airline experience with Air Canada was a smooth and efficient process with an up-to-date informative website on entry and transit requirements and professional staff easing the concerns of passengers. The professionalism of frontline workers was evident at every step of my travels, and I am in awe of their resilience and adaptability in the face of continual change.
Unfortunately, the processes associated with the airport and accommodation experience upon arrival at LAX were not as smooth and efficient. Though the staff I dealt with were understanding and extremely helpful with all enquiries. Within the airport environment, there is considerable renovation being undertaken both inside and outside the terminals. Transport and hotel providers have amended their offerings and this resulted in confusing and at times chaotic scenes. Some would say that this has always been a hallmark of LAX operations, but my previous experience has not been as chaotic.
Due to the drop in demand in response to the pandemic airport hotels have consolidated their shuttle services and some utilise the LAX-it transport service. Unfortunately, the name-brand airport hotel I was staying at had not updated its website with this information resulting in a prolonged wait at the terminal. To add further confusion the adopted practice utilised a further ride-sharing facility from the off-site LAX-it terminal.
The particular ride-share operation was not an app on my mobile phone, and free WiFi was not available at the LAX-it off-site area. Roaming outside the U.K. with my provider comes at a cost of 2 pounds ($2.77) per minute to make calls, 1.50 pounds per minute to receive calls and 5 pounds per MB of data. Going forward, I will look to minimize this kind of issue with a change of plan, but the average traveler may not have the capability or ability to do so.
To add further inconvenience the ride-share company could not facilitate a ride with a non-U.S. mobile number, so a taxi was needed to get to the hotel. Thankfully, the hotel staff were gracious in refunding the cost of the taxi as this was something they were encountering on a more regular basis. From Nov. 8, the refunds to international travellers may become a cost that may cause a rethink to the resumption of a dedicated shuttle.
With in-person aviation industry events ramping up and general events requiring some form of proof of vaccination for attendance, the last experience I encountered further highlights the internal mindset that has crept in since the pandemic began. To attend the event, we had traveled to Los Angeles for required a Covid-19 Health Certificate on an app. Unfortunately, the app was only available through the U.S. and Canada App stores. To download it required a change of region, which is not possible if you have active subscriptions.
Tests were undertaken through a separate website and were meant to link with the app to allow efficient access to the event. Again the process was U.S.-centric and did not allow for international attendees to fulfil the attendance requirements. Proof of vaccination certificates to be uploaded was only those recognised as having been issued within the U.S. Fortunately the organisers had created a contingency plan but this had not been communicated to alleviate concerns for international event attendees. Thankfully the contingency measures for international attendees were instigated, communicated effectively to event staff and the flow into the event was seamless and efficient.
Finally, on a personal note, it was great to be back in the U.S. and I am in no doubt that the pent-up demand for travel will see the travel industry rebound in the near future. However as the world begins to open up further to international travel the need arises for a more external, collaborative focus and strategies for those in the aviation and tourism industries to facilitate the safe return of passengers and customers and to minimise frustrations and confusion.