US Airlines Are Considering Requiring Covid-19 Vaccination To Fly. This Is Completely Unnecessary.

While Qantas CEO Alan Joyce was the first to voice a plan to permit only passengers who have been vaccinated to fly internationally, U.S. airlines are considering a vaccination requirement as well. Among issues on the table are:

  • Will this lead to greater confidence in flying, making more people confident in travel, or will it turn people off and cut off potential customers who might buy tickets?

  • Can any decision be done in unison, or potentially be required by the government (to skirt anti-trust rules) rather than being done on a carrier-by-carrier basis where this would differentiate product

Requiring masks made sense. That’s one element that helped give people visible confidence that airlines were ‘doing something’ for passenger safety. Having these requirements at the airline level, rather than by government mandate, also made sense because some airlines could go farther in requiring 2 year olds to wear masks and denying medical exemptions while Delta Air Lines still offered the option for children under 10 to travel if they couldn’t keep a mask on and to have an airport medical consultation for those truly physically unable to sustain mask wearing.

Requiring vaccination, especially for domestic travel, is not going to make sense because by the time enough vaccine is available to make this viable virus spread will be far less of an issue and those who are vaccinated won’t need additional confidence in order to travel.

  1. There won’t be enough vaccine available for people to have all had the chance to be vaccinated before summer. It’s six months before implementing this can even be a live issue, although airlines will need to announce in advance because customers will be buying tickets – a new vaccination post-ticketing will require airlines to offer refunds to anyone who cannot fly, while they’ll want to announce a couple of months in advance of implementation if they believe it gives people confidence to buy tickets when they’d be in the window in which they’d consider travel.

  2. The virus won’t be spreading nearly as widely by the time this question is ripe. A third of the country may already have had Covid-19. If the current wave continues on pace that could reach 50% by the time vaccines are widely available. As vaccines roll out that means more people with more immunity and fewer people who are available for the virus to infect. Herd immunity isn’t an either-or proposition, fewer people who are immediately vulnerable to the virus slows down spread.

  3. If you’re vaccinated, you’re less worried about being around people who aren’t. While vaccines won’t be 100% effective, people are going to feel confident going back into the world once they’ve been vaccinated. Hopefully they’ll wait weeks after their second dose (in the case of the two-dose regimen vaccines), but the populace will likely act as though a vaccine means invulnerability (in fairness, even where a vaccinated person does get Covid-19 their case is more likely to be mild).

    People who are vaccinated, who would be allowed to fly, aren’t going to be concerned whether other people are vaccinated. Because they’ve been vaccinated.

  4. We don’t even yet know if the vaccines will be neutralizing. It’s some time before data will be available not only on whether it prevents contracting the virus but also whether it means the vaccinated person can’t spread the virus. It’s likely based on the science that spread will be significantly reduced among the vaccinated population, but it’s premature to make policy on what’s still an assumption.

  5. Some international flights may require vaccination because some countries could require it as a condition of entry – but this is challenging because even though the U.S. may have full access to vaccines by summer, much of the world still won’t.

    Large swathes of the globe cannot transport and store mRNA vaccines that require very low temperatures, and doses are generally going to rich countries first. The AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine is fortunately more portable, and so are Chinese vaccines.

The Qantas CEO probably jumped the gun announcing an intention to require vaccination for international travel on the airline. U.S. airline CEOs would be wise to hold off on anything more than preliminary discussions.

Airlines haven’t even required negative tests in order to fly (where the jurisdictions they’re flying to haven’t required it), and don’t seem to be discussing whether a recent positive test and recovery which would make someone similarly unlikely to contract the virus would suffice in place of a vaccine certificate.

It’s natural to look for silver bullets to bring back confidence in travel, but the silver bullet is the vaccine itself not proof of vaccination. And even then travel patterns will likely have changed.

We’ll see intertemporal substitution, where people have given up travel for so long making up for lost time and traveling for leisure, while business travel comes back only in piece since large gatherings will be farther off on the horizon and ‘return to office’ isn’t something everyone does every day making in-person meetings harder to coordinate, and online alternatives something we’ve all gotten more comfortable with.

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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Comments

  1. I suspect Australia will require proof of vaccination for entry, in which case Qantas, with virtually all its international routes beginning or ending in Australia, is right to get in front of the issue and make is intentions clear.

  2. Gary, out of curiosity – what exactly are your qualifications to write this article? You live off a blog where your main skill set in life is seeing check airline flights and miles opportunities. You’re not exactly a successful business CEO, but seem to be the expert on all things related to business. And now you’re also the smartest scientist in the room?

    There is value in life to sticking with what you do well.

  3. @ Gary — If this keeps the anti-vaxers (aka, anti-maskers; aka, stupid Trump voters) off the planes, I am all for it.

  4. @Jonathan Scott – “You’re not exactly a successful business CEO” outside of running a small business, my experience is 19 years as a Chief Financial Officer rather than as a CEO. So in that you’re correct.

    But is there anything you actually take issue with in this article, or think that what I’ve written is wrong? It’s all based, I think, on a clear reading of the best available science being written about the virus and vaccines for it, and applying that reading to air travel – which is exactly what I do.

    I would disagree that my “main skill set in life is seeing check airline flights and miles opportunities” and in fact I do not “live off a blog” as you suggest, that is simply not accurate.

  5. Another group would be the people in clinical trials. For instance, I’m in the middle of my two dose vaccine from AstraZeneca. I’m pretty confident I got the real deal, because I had side effects the next day. But I can’t prove it unless I test my blood, and the trial facility will most certainly not unblind the study, not unless the vaccine is approved. So I may have immunity/protection, but I can’t prove it.

  6. @Michael – upon approval though you’ll find out, and that’ll happen long before airlines require everyone to have been vaccinated in order to fly.

    Normally in a phase 3 study it’s not as easy for someone to discover whether they’re in the control group or received the real trial vaccine. Now though I’m reading about people all over that have gone and gotten tests for antibodies. Those are far more available for Covid-19 than for other things where vaccines are in trials!

    So people are unblinding themselves, plus as you note the side effects can be a strong tell. And while there’s some skepticism about whether the early results on effectiveness will hold up, there’s some hope that because people are figuring out whether they’ve gotten the real vaccine people who didn’t are being extra careful while those who did are being extra bold. In other words that in some ways the effectiveness in the trials could be understated, and this could balance out other effects we see later (from larger numbers, from shipping or storage or administration issues etc).

  7. My trial materials refer to some form of meningitis vaccine used for the control group. My wife says many studies do offer a real vaccine on the control group to induce a reaction that would mask better whether you are in a control group or not. However, the U.S. trials are using only a saline shot, and that most definitely does not cause headaches, fever, chills and injection site pain, which is what I got for about 15 hours the following day. Plus AstraZeneca does 67% vaccine, 33% placebo, so I’m fairly confident that I got a real one. I’m not going to go to the airport and lick the handrails, but would be good to know whether I can “test” the vaccine for real. Guy who actually gave me the vaccine did stress out that when I went home I should take 1,000 milligrams of Tylenol. Guessing they tell that to everyone to try to mask the symptoms. I did not feel I needed to, so I didn’t until I actually started running a fever.

  8. Guess we’re going to have to bail out the airlines even more…. if they’re expecting to be able to have business recovery based on people getting the vaccine! Guess business will suffer for a very long time.

  9. @gary

    As others have pointed out, you are no way near being qualified to make such a “fox and fiends” statement. Whilst the airlines may have convinced us that the likelihood of contracting COVID on a plane is minimal, the taxi / train / mule to the airport, the airport itself, the airline lounge, etc, etc are just as probable a place to catch it as anywhere else. Therefore, just as much as you wouldn’t socialise with anyone outside of your bubble, travelling without being vaccinated is probably not a good idea either.

    I’m especially not going to listen to opinions such as this from a blog based in a country that leads the world in cases and deaths:

    For complete openness, I also live in a country where the top tier of govt is staffed by people least likely to be able to program a dishwasher let alone listen to a scientist.

  10. This idea makes no sense. I see no benefit for the airlines in reducing their revenue by limiting the universe of passengers eligible to fly to those who have been vaccinated. Those who are vaccinated won’t be incentivized to fly more by keeping unvaccinated people off flights. End of story.

  11. Thanks to @Gene for showing us why Republicans will never let Sleepy Joe and Hoe-milla off the hook.

  12. My biggest fear is that, even after the vaccine is widely available, there will be a sufficient number of anti-vaxxers to keep the virus circulating here in the US. My local public school system requires children to be vaccinated against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, mumps, measles, rubella, polio, Haemophilus influenza type (Hib), hepatitis B, and varicella in order to attend school, and I support that requirement. I would also support requiring airline passengers to be vaccinated once the vaccine is widely available.

  13. @PandaMick “travelling without being vaccinated is probably not a good idea either.”

    And going to a restaurant “without being vaccinated is probably not a good idea either”.

    And taking public transportation “without being vaccinated is probably not a good idea either”.

    And going to the emergency room or going to see your doctor “without being vaccinated is probably not a good idea either”.

    So how about this: if it’s not a good idea, don’t do it. And also, don’t smoke. Or drink too much.

    I totally get the fact that there is a substantial proportion of the population psychologically attuned to refuse to do something because it’s required.

    But what I don’t get is the other, also substantial percentage of the population that is so eager to embrace mandates and so desirous of imposing them on people who don’t want to obey them.

  14. We are going to have an emergency FDA authorization for Covid-19 vaccine that is not the same the regular FDA authorization. There are simply enormous $$ at stake for the companies rushing to get the vaccines through the approval process. Also, Moderna and Phizer are mRNA vaccines – none of those have been approved before. Even if you are nor familiar with the FDA process, would you fly an aircraft that just went through emergency FAA approval process? Everyone should have a chance to either take the vaccine or not. At the end, if you just wear a mask you will be fine, right?

  15. @ Gene

    Thanks for confirming the fact that libturds are ALWAYS the first to get hateful/offensive.

    Asshole.

  16. This article makes perfect sense if you (like the author) own a business that makes more money when there is more air travel and who is focused exclusively on making money. But, for those of us who are not in that category or those who are but are not focused exclusively on making maximum profit, it is hard to see how any of this makes sense. The unstated assumption here is that not ramping up air travel numbers as fast as possible is harmful, which only leads to the question: Harmful to whom?

  17. I dont know how you can say that 30-50% of the country will be exposed by the spring or summer. If you talk to the talk to the experts that is highly! unlikely. You are talking 150+ million exposed by then which is not correct (if it were think about the related death rate). And also if you are thinking herd immunity most experts say that you need 70%+ for that.
    So please stay in your expertise and not other topics.

  18. @ Paulz @ Amazing Larry — They won’t be perfect, but at least Biden-Harris won’t be racketeering like the current occupant of the WH.

  19. It is disappointing that so many people jumped out of the woodwork to attack the author’s credibility rather than debate the ideas that were presented.

    All of the reasons Gary listed are valid.

    One not mentioned that might be more troublesome for airlines is that sharing personal medical information with a company to obtain service, esp. interstate transportation might be illegal.

    Countries might have vaccination requirements for international entrance but U.S. airlines have never been allowed to ask for proof of vaccination to allow travel for any other disease, so far as I know. There are a host of diseases which airline passengers could carry but the industry has never been in a position of asking passengers to prove they cannot transmit disease – and it is a slippery slope to start w/ covid, esp. given that there are abundant mitigation steps that airlines are doing. There is no evidence of anywhere near sufficient numbers of transmission via U.S. airline passengers to legally justify a rule to prevent transmission 9 months into the pandemic.

    To add on, the FAA specifically chose not to issue rulings regarding mask wearing, leaving that to individual airline policy.

    For lots of reasons, the idea of vaccination as a requirement to circulate in society should be shot down but esp. in interstate transportation.

  20. Gary there’s another reason you didn’t mention in your article regarding why this vaccine requirement is probably a non-starter (and if it is started will have to be abandoned rather quickly because it’s not an effective enough preventative measure)…length of immunization and strength of immunization.

    We already know for a fact that not everyone who gets the shot will be protected. So this automatically undermines the “vaccine as proof for flying argument”. But what’s less clear is for how long the immunization lasts. That’s something we don’t know yet and won’t know for over a year from now (if not longer). If the point of doing “proof of vaccine to be able to fly” is to establish that flying is safer, then there will have to be a statute of limitations on any proof of vaccine; a point in time after vaccination where the proof is no longer valid because it is not certain that immunity still exists.

    If it turns out that immunity lasts for everyone for a universally minimum amount of time, that would be very helpful but only to a point. Current flu vaccines generally aren’t considered trustworthy from an immunization standpoint after around six months but that’s okay because the usual flu season peak runs for less and the rest of the year we aren’t too concerned about contracting the flu. But COVID has shown to be a year round menace so there is no immunization safe zone like with the flu where your vaccine immunity can lapse and you don’t really have to worry about contracting the flu. If your COVID immunity lapses you are in immediate danger of contracting it.

    What this means is any “vaccine proof for travel system” is going to have to take into account that X months after vaccination you will need a new vaccination in order to travel still. From an IT/database standpoint in a world-wide travel network the type of which will be required to store this information for such a scheme, having an immunization end date presents further challenges for airlines, for governments, and for the travelers themselves.

    And all that’s only true, if there is a universally agreed upon length of time for how long vaccine immunity lasts. But what if a given vaccine has a wide delta for immunity duration; for example person A will only get 3 months of immunity but person C will get six months. Do we round down to the lowest common denominator of 3 months and say your only good to travel for 3 months and you have to get another vaccine in order to be able to fly?

    And what happens if it turns out that getting a Pfizer vaccine provides 6 months of immunity but getting a Moderna one only provides 4 months? The “vaccine travel database” system would have to account for discrepencies between vaccine types.

    All of this is conjecture at this stage because nobody knows the answers to any of these immunity questions yet and won’t know for a while. But this underscored the potentially dynamic nature of all the possible parameters at play that would have to be factored into any system that says prohibits air travel unless there’s proof of vaccination.

    It’s just not that simple a problem to solve. And that’s why I laughed at what the Qantas CEO said because he clearly was just spitballing without seriously thinking about what would be required to implement such a system, never mind how difficult it would be to get public buy in if turns out to be as convoluted as it could become if we have varying degrees of immunity for each vaccine.

  21. @Francis Rath – CDC currently estimates that the U.S. has had 8 times the cases than have been reported/confirmed (see for instance https://www.miamiherald.com/news/coronavirus/article247457275.html)

    If the CDC is correct there have already been ~ 114mm cases in the U.S., or over 34% of the population.

    So how is it unreasonable to believe that the number of people who have had the virus in the U.S. will be in the range of 30% – 50% *by summer*? If anything I’m lowballing the estimate, right?

  22. @Tim Dunn- a Biden DOT might take a different view than the Trump DOT did, and airlines would argue they will not receive actual medical information just a ‘clear to fly’ from a third party provider like Verifly. Not saying there aren’t issues and challenges here, but there are avenues they’d explore.

  23. “To add on, the FAA specifically chose not to issue rulings regarding mask wearing, leaving that to individual airline policy.”

    You mean the Trump FAA? I would have been very surprised if it had issued any rulings because one thing this administration has shown is its aversion to anything which could make the situation look worse (even if it was totally reality based in nature).

    A Biden FAA will probably do the opposite and issue rulings to have uniformity across the airlines. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on one’s ideology I guess…

  24. “If the CDC is correct there have already been ~ 114mm cases in the U.S., or over 34% of the population.

    So how is it unreasonable to believe that the number of people who have had the virus in the U.S. will be in the range of 30% – 50% *by summer*? If anything I’m lowballing the estimate, right?”

    Gary,

    In a few months that metric will become worthless and have to be permanently retired. The reason why is simple. Those start started catching it at the begining of this year will have lost immunity and be vulnerable for a re-infection. At that point, when lots of people who already had the virus are vulnerable for catching it again, maintaining a “national infection number” becomes pointless because you won’t know how many of those infected are still immune and new infections will now be including people who were infected previously, in effect counting them twice (or more) in the total number of infections.

  25. The FAA does not have authority to issue health-related edicts regarding airlines. There are a host of other agencies that do.

    Most bureaucrats are career and have served multiple administrations of multiple parties. The more specialized the role, the more likely they have not moved agencies or within parties.

    Even if Biden issued a bunch of rules on Day 1, there is a regulatory review process. Even emergency authority is not immune to legal challenges.

    While covid is a top issue in the country, it serves Biden or any other new administration no good to start off having major initiatives overturned or blocked within days of implementation.

    And at the rate the virus is spreading – and as Gary notes even the CDC estimates the number of people who have been exposed is much higher – virus case rates could very well start to fall long before Jan 20. Even if they don’t, there is probably a lot less that Biden can do once he takes over than alot of people think.

    And, most European and Latin American countries have per capita death rates that are within 10 percent of the U.S. Most of Europe and even E. Asian countries are seeing dramatic increases while S. America is slowing as windows are opened for summer. If there is a model that would slow the model without keeping the economy completely locked down, not many countries – and certainly none of the largest and richest in the west – have yet figured it out.

    We’d all love to think that we did all kinds of things – including mass required vaccinations – to put covid-19 in the same history books that other infectious diseases have been relegated but the chances are fairly high that the disease will just run its massive course all by itself.

  26. @Gene

    Proof, please.

    I guess you conveniently forgot racist grropin’ joe’s corruption… and that of his crack-head, pedophile son.

  27. @Douglas Swalen – it’s true we do not know how long immunity lasts, we have seen very few instances of reinfection so far, it’s probably 12-24 months on average but there’s some work suggesting it could be longer. But we’re quite a way off of a significant percentage of those who have been infected being vulnerable again outside of the Northeast, and even there we’ll start getting vaccinations backfilling by the time it’s an issue.

  28. @Amazing Larry – keep embarrassing yourself if you choose…Biden was among the poorer members of the Senate in all his years of service to the country. He’s not getting rich off the job.

    Your boy Trump, on the other hand, will be on trial in 2021 for all things tax / campaign finance fraud courtesy of the SDNY – CAN’T WAIT. Why do you think he is already scheming to pardon all the grifters in the family?

  29. @ Amazing Larry — Pedophile? Don’t you think maybe that accusation is a little overboard? Talk about lack of proof…

  30. I’ll be happy to get the vaccine if it means that I can travel.

    Problem is, availability. Just because I want it it doesn’t mean I can get it. And what about those people who want to fly or need to fly in true emergencies dash – a death in the family? But their departure area doesn’t have the vaccine? will the airports be like they are in some African and South American nations, where the yellow fever shot is available upon arrival?

    Important questions that need to be answered.

    BTW, a decade+ ago I had the “old” shingles shot, 60% effective. New doctor advised me to get the more effective, updated shingles vaccine, Shingrix. It’s a mRNA vaccine, like the Moderna one. Jeez, what a difference! Others I’ve spoken to have said the same thing, knocks you off your feet for a day or two. The RNA vaccines are really potent.

  31. Makes sense actually. Keep the anti vaxxers off the plane. Let them move to Trumpistan and infect themselves with every conceivable vaccine preventable disease there is.

  32. @amazinglarry will of course discount how his Dear Leader was a good friend of a true paedophile, and even spoke highly of him. After all @amazinglarry would support Trump if he actually committed paedophilia

  33. Stopping the spread of COVID would be amazing. One can only dream of living in Australia or New Zealand.

    I’m all for it. If you’re not vaccinated, you should not be the virus’s mule and you should not travel. That’s exactly how it works with Yellow Fever, and COVID should be no different.

  34. I absolutely favor requiring vaccination for all modes of travel except private car once it is generally available to anyone. To actually defeat the coronavirus catastrophe, rather than just personally staying alive while lots of other people are dying, requires not only getting the vaccine, but making sure that those who don’t are isolated. They should be banned from travel, from schools and universities, from indoor event venues, and from any gatherings which require paid admission or ID checks. Most countries will certainly require vaccination as a condition of entry for at least a while, and they absolutely should do that. Stop putting up with the nonsense.

  35. Proof of vaccination for international travel seems very likely and much less likely for most domestic flights. I would expect Hawaii to switch to requiring proof of vaccination for entry without undergoing a mandatory quarantine. Either way, mask requirements are probably going to remain in effect through most or all of 2021.

  36. Well, it is one option that flying in the future is only possible for people who got the vaccine – either by the airline regulations or by entry requirements of the countries.
    Or they won’t force you to get the vaccine, but they make it impossible to fly without, for example by ticket restrictions. I mean, nobody is forced to book a restricted ticket, but who pays a full-flex ticket for 10 times the price (except very few).

    Chris

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