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Should the COVID-19 vaccine figure into the future of flying?

Illustration of an airplane and hypodermic needles
(Ross May / Los Angeles Times; Getty Images)

The vaccine for COVID-19 might be the beginning of the end of the pandemic, but for airlines, it’s the beginning of the discussion about how and whether a vaccine will factor into the future of flying.

The discussion gained momentum after Alan Joyce, chief executive of Qantas Airways, said in November that the Australian airline will require passengers for international flights to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Whether you’ll need that domestically, we’ll have to see what happens with COVID-19 and the market, but certainly for international visitors coming out and people leaving the country, we think that’s a necessity,” Joyce said, according to CBS News.

Soon after his remark, this turned up on the Qantas website: “While the Australian Government strongly supports immunisation and will run a strong campaign to encourage vaccination, it is not mandatory, and individuals may choose not to vaccinate. There may, however, be circumstances where the Australian Government and other governments may introduce border entry or re-entry requirements that are conditional on proof of vaccination.

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“It’s likely that other countries — and possibly airlines— will require vaccination against Covid-19 before allowing entry. This already happens with yellow fever and polio in some parts of the world.”

Perhaps Joyce overreached, but other airlines could back that play.

The questions become these: Could U.S. airlines require a vaccine? Would the airlines do that? How would they do that? Should the public just submit and hang the ramifications?

The answer to each of those questions: a definite maybe.

Here are factors to consider as the vaccine begins its rollout.

Could airlines require a vaccine?

They could, said Sharona Hoffman, a professor in the department of bioethics and codirector of the Law-Medicine Center at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. That doesn’t mean airlines will.

Because there is no federal mandate for mask wearing, each airline was left to establish its own mandate. As private businesses, they can do so. It could be the same regarding the vaccine, Hoffman said.

There would be exceptions — “carve-outs,” she said — to take into account already established protections, including the Americans With Disabilities Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

To that add the Air Carriers Access Act and Department of Transportation regulations, Mario R. Bordogna of the Clark Hill law firm wrote in an email. “There are certain nondiscrimination provisions in that act and [in the] regulations. Some of those provisions are similar to the ADA, in that passengers may present a medical basis to be exempt from any vaccine requirement to fly, which airlines have to examine as a private employer would.”

Would the airlines require a vaccine?

A vaccine may be a bullet, but it is not necessarily the silver bullet. Why?

First, anti-vaxxers. Their numbers appear to be growing, a Lancet article reported. The medical journal cited figures from the Center for Countering Digital Hate that showed that people who don’t believe in vaccines have an increased presence on social media, including the “31 million people [who] follow anti-vaccine groups on Facebook, with 17 million people subscribing to similar accounts on YouTube.”

Next, general skepticism among Americans. About 58% of respondents to a November Gallup poll said they would take the shots, an increase from previous numbers in September that said only half of Americans would. The country remains worried about the rapidity with which the vaccines were developed, which may not have been helped by its “Operation Warp Speed” project name.

Instead, said Roger Dow, chief executive of the U.S. Travel Assn., consider the vaccine just one part of a multipronged effort to stamp out the virus. The U.S. addressed the threat of terrorism using a multilayered approach, and the country should consider the same for this issue.

“We’ve got to get to a situation where it’s the vaccine, it’s testing, it’s protocols at hotels, it’s travelers doing all things,” he said as part of a panel early this month on the World Travel and Tourism Council’s “One Voice: to Recovery and Beyond” webinar.

And finally, and perhaps most important, is “potential customer backlash airlines face, financially and reputationally, if they do institute a vaccine requirement,” Bordogna said. “These practicalities sometimes dictate what happens a lot more in the first instance than the law does.”

How would airlines monitor whether a traveler has had the vaccine?

Several apps are in the works, including the Travel Pass from the International Air Transport Assn., and CommonPass, in conjunction with the Commons Project and the World Economic Forum. These apps will tell you whether your records are in line with requirements at your destination. They can be used for vaccination and testing information. Both say your information will remain private.

Should the public take the vaccine?

That’s a personal choice. If you’re desperate to travel and the vaccines prevent COVID-19, yes — assuming the immunizations are safe (allergic reactions were reported among some of the first recipients in the United Kingdom) and that proving you have been vaccinated is easy and preserves your right to privacy.

In the end, it’s about your freedom, oddly enough. Having to take a vaccine, like wearing a mask, impinges on your freedom, some people believe. For others, getting vaccinated is the key to reclaiming your freedom and lifting your spirits by letting you do what you love, which is travel. Now that’s a shot in the arm.

Have a travel problem, question or dilemma? Write to catharine@catharinehamm.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry


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