You don’t need to be Nostradamus to foresee how the travel industry plans to win back the trust and confidence of skittish vacationers who have scuttled plans for the past year due to COVID-19. It involves a needle, inoculation, and then proof that a vaccine has been administered.
Cruise lines such as Crystal, Saga, and Indiana-based river line American Queen Steamboat Company have announced that COVID-19 vaccinations will be mandatory for all passengers. Other cruise companies, such as Royal Caribbean, are experimenting with mandatory vaccinations. Soon that jab-to-travel requirement could become reality for airlines. A few have already said, or at least hinted, that it will be necessary to board. Countries that have been particularly vigilant about keeping coronavirus out of its borders are also likely candidates for requiring visitors to be vaccinated before entering.
“The key questions are: Will [the vaccine] be available, and will it be accepted as part of the new normal in traveling globally?” said Mark Cameron, an immunologist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “I don’t think that’s difficult to picture. If, hypothetically, France became a country that requires you to have proof of vaccination to board a plane, I think that’s a step that people would be willing to take.”
Last fall, not long after news that trials for Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were successful, Qantas announced that vaccinations would eventually be required for travel. Alan Joyce, CEO of the Australian airline, said the move would be “a necessity” when vaccines are widely available.
“I think that’s going to be a common thing talking to my colleagues in other airlines around the globe,” he told Australia’s Nine Network last November. The interview immediately made international headlines. “We will ask people to have a vaccination before they can get on the aircraft . . . for international visitors coming out and people leaving the country, we think that’s a necessity.”
South Korea’s largest airline is taking a similar, albeit slightly more conservative, stance on vaccines. Jill Chung, a spokesperson for Korean Air, said there’s a real possibility that airlines will require that passengers be vaccinated. But she said that’s because governments are likely to require vaccinations as a condition for lifting quarantine requirements for new arrivals.
US-based carriers have not been as forthcoming on their policies, and many experts think it’s unlikely that proof of vaccination will be required for travel within the United States for residents. Earlier this month, executives from several US airlines spoke out strongly against the CDC requiring testing for coronavirus in order to board domestic flights. The CDC has since dropped the idea.
Even the idea of requiring vaccination for airline employees has met with mixed reactions. United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby asked other carriers to join him in requiring airline employees receive the COVID-19 vaccine, but both Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines said that while they will encourage employees to get vaccinated, they will not mandate it. However those employees may not have a choice if they are working on international flights to countries that require a vaccine.
Dr. Anthony Fauci has weighed in on the idea of vaccine passports, telling Newsweek that he thinks it’s “quite possible.”
“Everything will be on the table for discussion,” Fauci said.
The concept of requiring vaccinations to visit specific countries is not new. Several African countries require visitors to be vaccinated against yellow fever. Once vaccinated they’re given what’s commonly referred to as a yellow card, which allows entry.
Unfortunately, proof of COVID-19 vaccination won’t be as simple as a card. Currently four major players claim to have the answer to the conundrum and are hoping that their digital health passports will become the international standard. IBM, Clear, the International Air Transport Association, and the Commons Project Foundation are all in various stages of testing or rolling out their digital passports. While all the apps will have multiple features, the common denominator is allowing authorized labs and test centers to securely share test and vaccination information, which would allow travelers to show proof of vaccination.
“This is something we were actually working on before COVID hit,” said Perry Flint, a spokesman for the IATA. The organization’s Travel Pass app rolled out this week. “The genesis goes back to trying to modernize processes. You go to an airport when you’re traveling internationally and you’re bringing out your passport three, four, five times. What if you could take that paper passport and basically get it onto your mobile device, your iPhone, or your Android, whatever. And you would just show that once and it would be linked to you biometrically and basically the systems would all recognize you.”
Since the start of the pandemic, health has come to the forefront of the IATA app, with a focus on allowing it to link with an authorized lab to share a passenger’s negative COVID-19 test or a record of vaccination. Emirates has announced that it will be using IATA’s Travel Pass App.
The global airline industry, which faces $157 billion in losses through next year because of the historic collapse in demand, sees a digital health pass to certify passengers are COVID-free as the key to resuming international travel.
So far, the most popular choice among airlines is CommonPass, currently offered on select flights by United Airlines, Lufthansa, Virgin Atlantic, Swiss International Air Lines, and JetBlue. It uses a digital certificate downloaded to a mobile phone to show a passenger has tested negative for COVID-19. Users can then offer the certificate as proof of a negative test if the country requires it.
But not everyone is convinced that a standardized electronic vaccine passport will be so easy to pull off in such a short span of time.
“In some countries where you have nationalized medicine, you can track tests and vaccinations easily,” said Ida Bergstrom, a Washington D.C.-based physician who specializes in immunization, vaccination, and travel medicine. “But for the United States, that’s not the case. What is going to sync with the airlines or what’s going to sync with these governments, and how’s that going to play out? I can sort of see a disaster in the making. They’ve been talking about COVID passports since day one and I’m not sure the practicality of it.”
There are other issues at play. A vaccination passport would restrict people from economically disadvantaged countries who don’t have access to a vaccine. Making the process entirely digital could also be difficult for travelers who don’t use mobile devices.
“It will take a significant amount of time to vaccinate the global population, particularly those in less advanced countries, or in different age groups, therefore we should not discriminate against those who wish to travel but have not been vaccinated,” said Gloria Guevara, president and CEO of the World Travel and Tourism Council.
Health officials also continue to stress that even though an individual has been vaccinated doesn’t mean they’re safe from spreading the virus.
“We don’t know what kind of immunity the vaccine actually confers,” Bergstrom said. “Since I’ve been vaccinated, it’s very unlikely I’m going to have a severe illness, but my lifestyle hasn’t changed a whole lot because my husband and children aren’t vaccinated yet. So if I were to run off to, let’s say Cancun, I can come back with COVID. Even though I wouldn’t necessarily be at huge risk, I could give it to my family and then something could happen to them.”
Whether or not airlines and cruise ships require a COVID passport may not matter if countries begin requiring it. Both Australia and New Zealand have been quick to lock down and halt international arrivals when coronavirus cases emerge. It’s not difficult to imagine those countries requiring a COVID passport. Israel is issuing its vaccinated residents “green passports,” which allows them to patronize gyms, hotels, and sporting events. It will also allow them to travel internationally when the country resumes flights. It seems like a given that incoming travelers will face the same rules.
Despite all the uncertainty surrounding health passports, a beleaguered travel industry is pinning its hopes on the vaccine and hoping that it, along with a continued multi-layered approach of mask wearing and social distancing, can help it get back on its feet. Expect to see more cruise companies, an industry that was flattened by the pandemic, require passengers to be vaccinated in order to sail.
After a year of very limited travel, John Lovell, president of Travel Leaders Group, is saying the words that few of us with dreams of exploring the world again want to hear.
“I do see vaccinations being required by many airlines, cruise lines, and even hotels in late fourth quarter of this year . . . and beyond.”