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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.