The recent news of a successful COVID-19 vaccine might have you dreaming of packing your bags, but before you buy a ticket to see grandma, you might be wondering what the new treatment means for air travel. While most carriers have done a great job during the pandemic in the past few months—taking steps like enforcing a mask mandate, blocking of middle seats, and, in some instances, requiring proof of negative tests before flying—the public distribution of a vaccine presents a new potential challenge—requiring passengers to provide an “immunity passport” showing proof of vaccination to the coronavirus.
If the idea of not traveling until you can receive the vaccine seems scary, you aren’t alone. But fear not, to provide some clarity on a difficult situation, we spoke to various travel organizations, experts, airline representatives, and fellow travelers on what the COVID-19 vaccine means for travel and whether or not we should soon expect to whip out a vaccine certificate along with our boarding pass.
“It is important to distinguish between certificate of vaccination, which is the familiar card which shows what vaccines a person has received, and a requirement of vaccination to occur prior to travel. WHO is currently exploring how the common vaccination record could be done electronically,” explained Wynne Boelt, a spokesperson for the World Health Organization. “We will need to secure enough supply and access to safe and effective vaccines before such a certificate would be feasible.” Boelt also clarified that, while some governments have suggested that having COVID-19 antibodies can be a substitute for a vaccine, the WHO does not recommend this.
Meanwhile, the International Air Transport Association has plans for an electronic certificate of their own. The Travel Pass app, which the IATA recently announced, is expected to launch in March. The app will enable passengers to create a “digital passport,” receive test and vaccination certificates, and verify that they are sufficient to travel. Passengers can also share test results or vaccination certificates with airlines and other authorities. The group says the pass will be compliant with applicable privacy laws like HIPAA and GDPR and that travelers will be in control of their own data and privacy, and that the pass itself does not store any data.
“[The Travel Pass app] simply links entities that need verification, such as airlines and governments, with the test or vaccination data when travelers permit,” said Perry Flint, an IATA spokesperson. “This last point is key. No verification will go to an airline or a government without the authorization of the traveler.”
In November, Qantas became the first major airline to announce proof of vaccination as a requirement for flying. "Australia’s success at virtually eliminating COVID means we’ll need a vaccine for international travel to restart properly," said CEO Alan Joyce on an investor call. "We have a duty of care to our people and to our passengers, and once a safe and effective vaccine becomes readily available, it will be a requirement." Currently, all international Qantas flights have been suspended until July 2021, while Australia has an international travel ban in place until March 2021.
Qantas remains the only major airline thus far to take a firm stance on vaccinations as a necessity moving forward, though others may eventually follow suit, especially if the country they are based in requires a vaccination for entry.
While representatives for Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, and American Airlines all declined to comment, Katherine Estep, a spokeswoman for Airlines 4 America, a D.C.-based trade and lobbying organization representing the major American airlines, told TripSavvy that while there are currently no plans for any of the American carriers to require proof of vaccination, the situation is being closely monitored. Estep also pointed out recent research by Harvard University’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative which evaluated the current inflight experience.
“We were encouraged that the results confirm that—due to the multiple layers of protection—the risk of transmission on an airplane is ‘very low’ and that being on an airplane is ‘as safe if not significantly safer’ than routine activities such as going to the grocery store and eating at a restaurant,” she said.
While there are no plans for the major U.S. carriers to require proof of vaccination, passengers must complete short health acknowledgment forms before boarding, including contact tracing. As private companies, airlines will be able to enforce such a rule should they choose to implement one—similar to the mask mandate, which has resulted in some customers being permanently banned from airlines for noncompliance. Ultimately, some passengers cannot have vaccines, with reasons ranging from allergies and other health reasons to personal reasons such as religious beliefs—all obstacles that the airlines will have to sort out.
Owen Rees, a surveyor who lives in London, is unsure when and if he will be able to receive the vaccine at all, due to a peanut allergy. The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency issued a statement preliminarily advising those with a significant history of allergic reactions against getting the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.
"As is common with new vaccines the MHRA have advised on a precautionary basis that people with a significant history of allergic reactions do not receive this vaccination after two people with a history of significant allergic reactions responded adversely," said Stephen Powis, national medical director for England's National Health Service.
Still, Rees, who typically travels internationally multiple times per year in support of Tottenham Hotspur, a London-based soccer club, said he would volunteer to be vaccinated regardless if it becomes a requirement for flying. “I assume there will be exemptions or allowances made. They can’t say anyone with an allergy can’t fly,” Rees, who’s ultimately in favor of airlines requiring the vaccine, said. “There may be different advice for different vaccines, as well.”
Zach Honig, editor-at-large for The Points Guy, tells us he doesn’t believe the U.S. carriers will ultimately require vaccination for domestic travel but may do so on a case-by-case basis for international flights.
“Certain countries will require proof of vaccination for entry, and carriers will need to honor that,” Honig explained, noting that it won’t be so much carrier-specific, but country-specific, in terms of who will require a certificate. He also added that many countries, like Rwanda, already require such proof of vaccination for yellow fever.
So while we can’t freely hop on a plane just yet, rest assured, the day is slowly growing closer.