Should airlines make Covid-19 vaccination mandatory for travel?

With increasing numbers of countries starting their Covid-19 vaccination roll-out, will vaccination be mandatory for the global aviation industry to go back to normal or will it impede the safe resumption of operations even further? Ilaria Grasso Macola and Joe Baker weigh in on the issue.

Ilaria Grasso Macola: Making vaccinations mandatory for flying will only bring down an industry already on its knees

It’s true, a global roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines is the only way for the whole world to leave this nightmare behind and resume normal life and all it entails, including freedom of movement and international flying.

But even though some countries have made a lot of progress in their vaccination campaigns, others have just started, and this highlights how the road to achieving global herd immunity to Covid-19 is still too far ahead for industries such as aviation to remain grounded.

Imposing mandatory vaccination as a pre-requisite for air travel will only bring down a sector that has suffered terribly, damaging the industry as much as lockdowns have done.

“Just as quarantine effectively halted the industry, a universal requirement for vaccines could do the same,” Airport Council International (ACI) director general Luis Felipe de Oliveira told Reuters in December. “While we welcome the rapid development and deployment of vaccines, there will be a considerable period before they are widely available.

“The industry cannot wait till vaccination becomes available worldwide. During the transition period, tests and vaccines together will play a key role in the industry recovery.”

Waiting for worldwide vaccination will mean that people will not resume flying for the foreseeable future, hindering economies that have small domestic aviation markets such as Europe. Also, if vaccines are made mandatory, airlines will have to decide which ones to approve, potentially creating conflict between each other as well as with passengers.

“The other issue about mandatory vaccines is going to be what vaccine did you get,” Dr David Freedman, infectious diseases professor at the University of Alabama, explained to Reuters. “Do we trust every vaccine that’s made in the world?”

Instead of making vaccination mandatory for flying, international bodies – including ACI, the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), World Economic Forum (WEF) and the International Chamber of Commerce – are calling for a safe resumption of air travel.

“It will take considerable time to vaccinate the world and for the vaccines to have a significant effect on the global population, and the global travel and tourism sector simply cannot wait,” commented WTTC president and CEO Gloria Guevara. “Vaccination must not be a requirement to travel but should co-exist with testing regimes and be considered as a progressive enhancement to already safe travel.”

To revive an industry that has 147 million jobs at stake worldwide, organisations have proposed alternatives to mandatory vaccination, including globally recognised testing regimes on departure, heightened health and hygiene protocols and risk management regimes, to be adopted by governments instead of quarantine policies.

“It is imperative that governments and industry collaborate to enable a hybrid regime of risk management interventions which may include testing, vaccines, and other measures as part of a broader hierarchy of controls,” said WEF head of mobility Christoph Wolff.

“As a better approach, rapid and reliable systematic testing can effectively stem the spread of the virus today, allow travel to resume safely and enable an effective reboot of the global economy,” added ICC secretary general John Denton.

Joe Baker: Airlines should be wary of government rules regarding vaccination for travel

Earlier this year, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) supported an initiative from Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to create a common digital Covid-19 vaccination certificate, which would allow vaccinated airline passengers to travel freely within Europe.

“Vaccination is a fundamental key to safely reopening borders and stimulating economic recovery,” said IATA Director General and CEO Alexandre de Juniac at the time.

“A pan-European, mutually recognised vaccination certificate would be an important step towards giving governments the confidence to safely open their borders, and passengers the confidence to fly without the barrier of quarantine.”

The move signals recognition that vaccines will ultimately be the way out of the Covid-19 mess and the aviation industry should be prepared to take a stance on them. But understandably, concerns remain that airports/airlines cannot wait for whole populations to get the jab, particularly if vast swathes of people don’t have access to the vaccine or refuse to take it.

Proponents of mandatory vaccination argue that the focus should be on ensuring populations are protected from widespread transmission and easing the aviation industry into a state where it can readily accept this new normal. What’s more, mandatory vaccination could offer safety-minded passengers more peace of mind, potentially driving a return to air travel.

Last November, Australian flag carrier Qantas revealed that vaccination would be required for international travellers on its flights. At the end of January, it revealed that a massive 87% of flyers surveyed said they were willing to take a Covid-19 vaccine if required. Korean Air and Delta Air Lines have both hinted they will require vaccination as a prerequisite for travel in the future.

Nevertheless, the reality is that many airlines have been fighting a losing battle against Covid-19, and it could be set to get even harder. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the start of March maintained its stance that fully vaccinated individuals should not travel as it would risk a surge in cases. Scientists are still in the process of determining whether vaccines are effective at reducing transmission.

In such a landscape, where medical experts continue to discourage movement of any kind, it doesn’t make economic sense for airlines to prematurely mandate vaccination if they want to survive.

Nevertheless, airlines should be ready to respond to various governments in countries they service. IATA has already been doing this to some extent with the introduction of its digital travel pass, which will allow airlines to collect information on passengers’ Covid-19 test and vaccination status.

The reality is that major aviation markets around the world could take this decision away from airlines. Therefore, they should be ready to adapt if necessary.