Everyone Expects A Vaccine To Bring Back Travel. That May Not Be How It Happens.

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby talked during his airline’s earnings call about the airline expecting to plateau at 50% of last year’s revenue ‘until there’s a vaccine’ and then expecting recovery to come very quickly to the airline business. American Airlines and Southwest Airlines, too, talked about a vaccine for Covid-19 during their earnings calls.

I’ve already written about a vaccine not being a silver bullet, that it’s likely not to be 100% effective and not everyone will take it. That means the virus will continue to circulate, people will still get infected, though hopefully biomedical advances will mean better therapeutics as well that improve patient outcomes. That could help keep hospitalizations down, keep hospital stays shorter, and prolong lives.

We already have a vaccine in fact we have several in that there are medical interventions that have been shown to be prophylactic in early stage trials. China is vaccinating its military in what amounts to a human challenge trial. The Oxford-AstraZeneca, Moderna, and BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine projects all look promising.

There are several known hurdles that still stand in the way of immunizing people once a candidate – or hopefully even more than one – is determined to be safe and effective. The vaccine needs to be mass produced, distributed, and people need to choose to become vaccinated.

It’s this last part that may wind up the trickiest – people may just not take it. I’ve seen an increasing number of people in my Facebook feed talking about not getting the vaccine once it’s available (it seems to correlate with a person’s views on masks). Add in that a vaccine could require a booster shortly after the first dose, and you’ve got a lot resting on voluntary compliance.

And there are going to be non-crazy reasons not to get it, too: side effects. Regarding the Oxford vaccine trial,

Yes, mild reactions were far more common than worse ones. But moderate or severe harms—defined as being bad enough to interfere with daily life or needing medical care—were common too. Around one-third of people vaccinated with the Covid-19 vaccine without acetaminophen experienced moderate or severe chills, fatigue, headache, malaise, and/or feverishness.

Close to 10 percent had a fever of at least 100.4 degrees, and just over one-fourth developed moderate or severe muscle aches. That’s a lot, in a young and healthy group of people—and the acetaminophen didn’t help much for most of those problems. The paper’s authors designated the vaccine as “acceptable” and “tolerated,” but we don’t yet know how acceptable this will be to most people.

Regarding the Moderna trial,

By the time they’d had two doses, every single one was showing signs of headaches, chills, or fatigue, and for at least 80 percent, this could have been enough to interfere with their normal activities. A participant who had a severe reaction to a particularly high dose has talked in detail about how bad it was: If reactions even half as bad as this were to be common for some of these vaccines, they will be hard sells once they reach the community—and there could be a lot of people who are reluctant to get the second injection.

Ultimately if it’s a couple days of fever and aches for some people, that’s better than getting the virus, and more importantly people who go through that fever and aches and avoid the virus do not spread the virus. There’s a selflessness to getting the vaccine, entirely apart from the protective nature of it which allows people to travel again freely without fee. Although we do have to see how tolerable it is for the elderly.

If the vaccine were 100% effective, that would be enough to travel on its own. A 40% effective vaccine, which is the effectiveness of last fall’s flu vaccine, is only effective if enough people take it so that combined with those recently effective or otherwise immune the virus has nowhere to go to spread and infection levels fall dramatically and stay low.

As countries open up to international travel it may not be like before, with visa-less entry for people carrying myriad passports. Requesting advance permission to enter may become the norm – with proof of vaccination. That will shut out many people without early access to a vaccine around the world, and it will preclude the travel industry from returning to normal quickly. More importantly even a vaccine may not vanquish Covid-19, and people may be slow to return to normal life even after one is introduced.

I’m an optimist – I believe that vaccines, therapeutics, and retained immunity perhaps for a year or longer (via T-cells and B-cells after antibodies fade) will combine to make a year from now very much ‘normal’ life. But it’s not guaranteed – and just as important to understand, a vaccine is only one part of a longer process rather than a light switch that gets us there.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I think even with an effective vaccine air travel won’t return to what it was pre-covid.

    With businesses being forced to rely on virtual meetings they have severed the cord and found what we all know; there is minimal business which requires face to face interaction. Sure there are some and those will continue and have during the pandemic. And while some company will allow their employees to travel once again, I suspect it will be far less than it was in 2019.

    It will be down for a number of years to come I would imagine.

  2. Proof of Vaccination entered into the yellow “International Certificates of Vaccination” will likely be required by many countries for entry. A doctor’s note will not be enough.

  3. The whole response to COVID is all about a numbers game, so the effectiveness of a vaccine strategy will not rest on 100% being vaccinated, but a significant proportion being vaccinated (and that number will depend upon the vaccine’s own effectiveness).

    If a reasonably effective and tolerable vaccine becomes available, and we haven’t yet figured out how to treat the disease, then I have no doubt that travel will require a vaccination certificate. That doesn’t mean that everyone travelling will be immune, but it does mean that the spread from travelling won’t be uncontrollable.

  4. Yes, I’m excited! America will lead the way with the powerful and effective vaccine and travel will return to normal by XMas vacation.

  5. Spot on, Gary, about the downsides this pandemic, and how it might affect travel for years to come.

    Our family is well-travelled, as are most of your readers. During the course of receiving many more vaccines than people who don’t travel outside of the United States, we’ve experienced reactions. They are inconsistent: one year, a flu shot may give me a day’s worth of aches pains, and the next year I’m fine. A decade ago I had a bad reaction to the tetanus shot, landed me in the emergency room. But a booster a few years ago did nothing.

    When our family received the yellow fever vaccine, I had no reaction. My husband (68 at the time!) felt ill for a day. It was our 20 year-old daughter who was quite sick, with chills and high fever, for a full weekend. And after receiving the typhoid vaccine, among the 3 of us only my husband had a reaction, with a full body rash and slight fever.

    So we suck it up and accept it for what it is.

    However, I’m not sure a lot of Americans are going to think the same way. First, you’ve got the anti-vaxxers, then you have the “staycationers”, who spend their week off putzing around the house – they won’t see the need to get a vaccine, as there isn’t (in their minds) any kind of threat, as they are staying local. Lastly, you have an exceptionally large group of people who can’t afford to lose downtime from their jobs, should they have a reaction to the vaccine.

    Overall I surmise that travel is going be adversely affected for years to come. That said, there will be a demand for other goods and services, such as faster internet speeds, more home-office furniture, and higher-end electronic devices. Likewise, I believe there will be an increase in small, local coffee shops with fast/free WiFi, for the times when we need to get away from the distractions of a home office, clear our heads, and refocus. I think, too, we will see a resurgence of co-working space, or leased “office pods” that are closer to where we live. Many of us do our best work in a neutral environment (think: library while in college). Then there is the sound-proofed, in-home pod https://www.talkboxbooth.com/privacy-solutions

    Just my 2¢.

  6. there is a therapeutic drug called Galidesivir , very similar to Remdesivir, but much safer and less costly. Not sure if it is politics or not but Fauci should know about it. The study with Galidesivr for covid in Brazil was funded by the government. I hate Politics.

  7. “Around one-third of people vaccinated with the Covid-19 vaccine without acetaminophen experienced moderate or severe chills, fatigue, headache, malaise, and/or feverishness.”
    Beats being dead, no:)
    BTW, those reactions sound EXACTLY like the flu vaccine.

  8. I myself will take the vaccine as soon as it is available. It will be worth it to be able to travel internationally again.

    I will miss the dirty looks people give me while I take off my mask for 90 minutes to drink my soda though.

  9. I believe this vaccine will become another stamp required for entry into countries much like Yellow Fever is. We will see if that happens but the risk of spread is too great for countries to allow people in without a vaccination.

  10. Has anyone heard if there have been any negative side effects with Provasic (more commonly known as RDU-90) as a vaccine for Covid?

  11. Has anyone heard if there have been any negative side effects with Provasic (more commonly known as RDU-90) as a vaccine for Covid?

  12. Actually I am enjoying travel right now without the masses lines etc. wearing a mask is a slight inconvenience, but nothing I can’t deal with. Award space is great. Now much easier to contact CSRs and they are actually helpful as not so busy and glad to be working. I will decide on getting a vaccine after I see how others react first. I don’t want to be among the first.

  13. Hopefully this is the end to pointless flying for work purposes.
    Companies will become more fiscally responsible and wont need to send every sales minion around the world

  14. A greater concern is the efficacy and side effect in the older population. Most of the clinical trials so far were conducted on younger cohorts.

  15. @Jetaway I agree 100% when viable vaccines are available this will be a requirement. Until that time some countries may require tests in some form.
    I think the US will require this as well from people visiting the US.

    Good logical points from Gary. No doubt many will not want any vaccine based on anti vaxxer, conspiracy theory, any possible side effects, not 100% effective, whatever.

  16. Those are exactly the side effects I had for each dose of Shingles vaccine. It sucks, but you’re over it in 24 hrs.

  17. This time away from travel made me realize I have over consumed buying travel, staying in expensive hotels and eating in overpriced restaurants.I’ve had decades on the road and the number one reason I won’t go back to the levels of travel again is how horrible most the legacy carriers treated me over the past ten years despite spending hundreds of thousands of dollars with them.Hello American, United & Delta.The CEOs of those airlines are arrogant and greedy,While I feel sadness for many of their team members and colleagues its nice to see that perhaps airlines may have to return to being respectful and making for good experiences.In the end to me the airline CEOS are as equally bad as the virus.So if there is a comeback I doubt I’ll be back as redemption and value are out of whack.I’m tired of being fleeced by massive devaluations and stingy award availability and then treated poorly with their equipment failure delays etc

  18. @Shawn – do you travel for work? I am part of a younger generation that previously thought, yes, everything can be done virtually just have a video meeting what’s the difference.

    13 years into my career and I can tell you that the people I visit face to face most often have much higher trust in me, and will call me with issues before complaining to their customer. They give you more opportunities and cut you more slack on mistakes. Maybe conventions will slow down? But remote employees going back to home office or out to customer sites? We are human and it is necessary and cannot be replicated by video meetings.

  19. Gary, very well written. It is nice to read someone who actually knows what is going on and understands it. I am so tired of media sensationalism, like the recent NPR headlines….I swear, they want the pandemic to never end.

    Thankfully, I work in a hospital daily, so I should be high on the list to get the vaccine. I will be hitting the road as soon as my wife and I are vaccinated, or the world learns to live with COVID-19. The idea that everything will be different, a “new-normal” is hogwash. Most of us want our normal lives back and will go back to them as soon as feasible. Let’s just hope there is football this fall, or we may have the implosion of American society…..

  20. My airline El Al canceled my trip, took my money, did not return my money, and I have no voucher which, I cannot use anyway. Why in the world, vaccine or not, would I ever give another airline my money again?

  21. Whenever I visit this site and read Gary’s articles along with the comment section, I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes.

    “How can an otherwise sane individual become so enamored of a fantasy, an imposture, that even after it’s exposed in the bright light of day, he still clings to it – indeed, clings to it all the harder? No amount of logic can shatter a faith consciously based on a lie.”
    Lamar Keene, a scam artist who posed as a psychic, describing why it was so easy to fleece people.

    Additionally, I find this behavior consistent at almost all travel sites. Is their something inherent in the travel world that causes people to be this naive?

  22. @Steve – I totally agree. You just cannot accomplish the same level of trust and communication with virtual meetings. I visited a customer a couple of weeks ago and the experience was much better – not only more efficient, but more personable.

    Business travel will come back. Virtual meetings are a good stopgap, but not a permanent solution for a lot of business issues.

  23. I doubt you will have an effective vaccine. At this point I think the only things they are testing are whether it seems safe and whether it triggers an immune response. I don’t think any tests include exposing people to the virus and seeing if they catch it and get sick.

    And whatever horse Trump is backing, it is likely to be one that breaks down and is a failure like all of his failed negotiations and business dealings.

    More effective treatments is probably the best hope for now. Barring a miracle this is the new normal for at least a few years.

  24. If business travel does not come back, the first and business class cabins as well as complimentary upgrades will be things of the past. Those cabins and perks are meant for the high value business traveller. If airlines lose those they will be left to cater only to the leisure traveller.

    The more immediate issue is liquidity. Every airline is in the same boat. If travel does not recover next year then they will all be either bailed out again or in bankruptcy court.

  25. During the ’08 recession a lot of business travel was trimmed or out right stopped. People started to discover online meetings then and said what people are saying now. “no need to travel when you can do it online”.. That lasted a couple of years and they went back to their old travel ways. I wouldn’t be surprised if that patter follows again.

  26. @rich “I don’t think any tests include exposing people to the virus and seeing if they catch it and get sick.” the reason for a 30k person trial precisely includes seeing how those injected with the vaccine fare against the virus vs those who receive a placebo. normally stage 3 trials take a lot longer because a disease isn’t as prevalent, but it’s circulating enough in some places now to offer clues quickly.

    there won’t be regulatory approval without some showing of efficacy (not just immune response)

  27. I’m registered for the stage 3 trail with Moderna. Can’t wait to get going, and hoping for a call any day now to set up the first appointment.

    I’ll bet it won’t just be international travel that will require a vaccine certificate for a time once they are generally available. Those who want to go to an indoor arena for a game or concert might find themselves left standing outside.

    Incentivize it. We are talking about another $1,200 per person stimulus check. It’s probably needed, but it’s just a bandaid that does nothing to solve the pandemic. Why not make the next stimulus check a reward for getting the vaccine? Conspiracy theorists may think twice about passing that up.

  28. @Steve/@Joe/@Patrick

    I happen to agree with you. Zoom et al is a stop gap but not a replacement. Several people on my team(s) have connectivity issues of one sort or another. If I have an important meeting to attend, the last thing I want is to worry about me or someone else not being able to fully participate because tech issues get in the way.

    Second, for meetings where real decisions needs to be made, zoom doesn’t cut it. Being able to read body language and facial expressions is so important. And this is especially true for me as an engineer — I have to give technical briefings, and I have to be able to understand who’s “getting it” and who’s not. This is very difficult to do in a virtual environment.

    Virtual conferences? Pass. Conferences are probably more about the personal interactions that occur outside of the direct presentations, the presentations themselves are often boring and not all that good.

  29. “Hats Off” (or maybe I should say “Masks Off” to all the volunteers who will receive and test the vaccine beginning trials. They are heroes in my book and I wish I could be one of them…but they do not want old ladies who love to travel. Sigh. As soon as a vaccine is proven, I intend to be stepping in the line to receive it and be happily seeing our beautiful world again. Thank you, too, for all the selfless doctors and nurses who fought through this pandemic. They should all receive a thank you free flight from an airline or Amtrak. Love your column, Gary.

  30. I will not be getting the first vaccine that is rushed out for profit. I am not an “anti-vaxer” and when something is proven with time to be safe and effective I’ll get it. But I have lost all confidence in the process right now. There has been a steady stream of “great vaccine news” which has been severely over-hyped and delivered directly to the public. These have been published before and without peer review, often in journals targeted to market investors. A couple were written by an author with past links to a hedge fund pump-and-dump. Now they are stockpiling vaccine that has not been stage 3 tested at all. Do you think they will want to throw it out rather than use it even if it is safe and marginally effective? The side effects will continue to be downplayed or ignored.

    I am not entirely sure we will get to that point given the history of efforts with other corona viruses, and “new” T cell approach is not really new, it’s been worked on for various things for years not without success.

    According to one article the bar is 50% effective. When/if they get to a point where one is clearly safe and much better than 50% effective I’ll be glad to get it. Until then others can be the guinea pigs. It’s sad that our leaders, political and scientific, have lost the faith of much of the public.

  31. I dont understand the desire to fly for work during covid.

    I get it, if you own your own business.

    But if you are working for someone else, especially as a corporate pawn, why would you risk your life for the sake of a project or a sales meeting

  32. @annabelle costa

    A business traveler is at much greater risk of dying in a car accident than from getting COVID-19 while flying.

  33. We in the medical profession have been able to see for some time where this is headed.

    There is an overwhelming political imperative for the US President to announce a vaccine before the election. And just as Gary has written, it will probably be a “rough and ready” one with side-effects which may prevent it from getting licensed outside the USA.

    I expect that multiple vaccines will work, but most would in normal times fail regulatory approval for safety reasons. But this time certain countries will wave them through, and I would too!

    But I’m a 51 year old man. I’ll gladly take anything that works, so long as the side-effects are less likely to kill me than the illness.

  34. I am 100% certain I will take a few days of chills, fevers, flu-like symptoms over the (admittedly small) risk of death or permanent organ damage. Any day. Not just to travel but to remove anxiety of catching COVID and potentially spreading it to loved ones.
    The sooner the better and hopefully it will be mandatory for school kids and teachers so we can get them back to classrooms where they belong.

  35. We have a hard enough time convincing people to wear masks and socially distance in this country. You think these covidiots are going to take a vaccine? GTFOH. If a safe and effective vaccine is developed it should be required by law. No more letting the idiots in the country drag the rest of us down.

  36. @Rich et al, my guess about the efficacy of the vaccine is that Covid19 will be like others that require a 2nd or 3rd booster, probably within a 90-120 day period.

  37. Sorry Bill, but you’ve got it backwards. Those you’ve bought into this malarkey are the “covidiots”. When will the sheep wake up?

  38. @James N – it’s you, it’s not “us”. You just come to this site and complain about the “scamdemic” nonstop, and nobody agrees with you. Don’t think you even really travel. Seriously, just go elsewhere.

  39. Well written article. For all the rabbit holes we can go down about this pandemic, any vaccine will not have the anticipated positive impact on the traveling public. Why would I say such a blasphemy and be such a wet blanket on the future of the travel industry? For this simple reason – setting aside the medical, epidemiological stats/forecast, the traveling public is now so paranoid about the new social parameters that it will be extremely challenging to undo this new paradigm.

    From the constant 24/7 barrage of information about the covid, whether based on the science or not, the general traveling public only hears what will reinforce the fears that the media, from whatever source or inclination, has managed to have us believe will not be undone to any significant degree by a vaccine. And secondly, the discovery of an initial vaccine will only begin the siren call of a covid mutation that has been identified and away we go on a new cycle of potential foreboding. And I am not referring to the so-called second wave. Again, a damn shame.

  40. We could bring back air travel in a month if we didn’t make Covid-19 1% virus, 99% political. I have a friend in NYC who went to the hospital in March and received Zinc, Z-Pak and HCQ. Out in 3 days and fine now. Facebook, YT, Twitter censor viral video of doctors Capital hill Coronavirus press conference. Listen for yourselves their frontline efforts……


  41. I would expect leisure travel recovery post-vaccine to take about as long as the post-9/11 recovery took. Some people will travel right away. Others will take time as their confidence increases.

    Business travel will take a LOT longer. Not just because companies have discovered the efficacy of digital connectivity, but also because the business world has been damaged. Fewer sales mean less money. Less money always means less travel and, let’s face it, unnecessary boondoggles represent a not insignificant portion of business travel.

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