After the attacks on the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, the US government made drastic changes to its aviation system. Many of these measures are still felt by passengers today. The question is to what extent the coronavirus will create a similar situation.
9/11: visas, passports and security
After the 9/11 attacks, questions were raised about how effective the security at US airports really was. All 19 terrorists passed all checks without problems and were allowed to board the plane. Security was stepped up considerably after 9/11. Where previously everything was arranged by various companies in the private sector, the government now established a central body that took care of all security measures. Furthermore, since 9/11, checks on both passports and visa have been much stricter. Previously, minor errors in visa applications were often not a reason to refuse entry. Even if travellers had no valid identity documents, they were often allowed to board the plane (provided it was a domestic flight). Since 11 September 2001, checks have been tightened up considerably. Even the smallest errors in visa or ESTA applications lead to rejections, and travellers who cannot show proof of identity are sent back home immediately, regardless of the duration of the flight.
Coronavirus: what changes this time?
The coronavirus has crippled economies all over the world. Travel is out of the question until it is absolutely certain that the virus is under control. However, the impact of the pandemic on American aviation is not expected to be as extreme as that of the attacks on 11 September 2001. After all, a virus cannot be stopped by a thorough visa check. It is likely that additional background questions will be asked when submitting an ESTA application or applying for a visa. Like other countries in the world, the USA is eager to get the tourism sector going again. Not surprisingly, as the country is the most popular travel destination in the world.
Cancellations but also optimism
Research in the USA shows that people are fairly optimistic about being able to travel again in the near future. Reservations are being cancelled to a lesser extent than many travel agents had expected. On the other hand, there are few new reservations coming in. People are waiting, but hopeful. For now, the majority of trips will be domestic. Travellers are still reluctant to get on a plane. It is not known how long this will last, but travel agencies estimate that it could be as late as 2021.
However, the situation surrounding the coronavirus changes from week to week. For example, there is no news yet about changes to the visa or ESTA form system for foreign visitors. The measures taken by the US government focus on quarantine. Other countries are already experimenting with allowing foreign tourists to enter their country, provided that they go into quarantine two weeks after arrival. ESTA applications for the USA are still coming in, but for trips that will take place (far) in the future. For many people, the idea that they can apply for an ESTA or visa at all is a comfort in itself; it shows that the feared extreme measures such as those after 11 September 2001 are not on the agenda for the time being.