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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

It’s time to require vaccinations for domestic flights

If proof of vaccination will soon be required in restaurants, bars, and nightclubs in Boston (as it already is in other cities), why not airplanes?

COVID-19 vaccination record cardsMatt Rourke/Associated Press

Shortly after the coughing CEO of Southwest Airlines told Congress that he thought “masks don’t add much, if anything in the air cabin environment,” the blow back from health officials and lawmakers was swift.

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly was on Capitol Hill last week to testify about the $50 billion US government bailout of the airline industry. The day after his mask comments, he tested positive for COVID-19. Those who have been on the front lines of the epidemic were furious about Kelly’s comments. Dr. Jerome Adams, who served as Surgeon General under President Trump, said it was both “irresponsible” and “reckless” for airline executives to make such comments about masks. (American Airlines CEO Doug Parker agreed with Kelly’s take.)

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Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College, had sharper words for the CEOs. He told CNN that he thought they had the “emotional intelligence of a door knob.”

“Aside from vaccinations, I think wearing a mask is one of the best preventative measures you can take on a plane,” Dr. Isaac Weisfuse, an epidemiologist and professor at Cornell University Public Health, told the Globe. “I know that airplanes have systems that exchange air and filter air, but people are going to be eating and talking. I think wearing a mask on an airplane seems to be a no-brainer. If you’re sitting next to someone with COVID-19, not all the air around you is immediately going to go into the filter, so I would think that wearing a mask would greatly help in that kind of situation.”

Public health experts say layering preventative measures, such as wearing a mask on a plane, is one of the best ways to slow transmission. But at the moment, airlines are missing the most important layer, and that’s to require that passengers be vaccinated in order to board a plane for a domestic flight.

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American Airlines CEO Doug Parker, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly, and United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby testified before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation on Dec. 15.Tom Brenner/Associated Press

If proof of vaccination will soon be required in restaurants, bars, and nightclubs in Boston (as it already is in other cities), why not airplanes? It’s time to require proof of vaccination to fly within the United States.

“I think people who are not vaccinated are taking an unnecessary risk by traveling because they’re in situations that may be easier to catch the virus,” Weisfuse said. “A vaccination mandate seems like a logical next step. It also might stimulate people to get vaccinated who have put it off.”

If the CEOs of Southwest and American think masks “don’t add much” protection, then it’s time to require vaccinations, which studies have shown add a lot of protection.

Requiring passengers to be vaccinated for domestic flights is not an impossible, or unheard of, feat. In Canada, a country where fewer than 30,000 people have died of COVID-19 and more than 80 percent of the population has had at least one shot, travelers must prove that they are vaccinated before they get on a plane or train. Even if that trip is within Canada, proof of vaccination is required. France has a similar law. The transportation industry in both countries has not collapsed as a result.

The regulation has not been without complications or controversy. In Canada, transportation minister Omar Alghabra told the CBC that proof of vaccination is the country’s clear path to restoring confidence in air travel, ultimately helping the ailing tourism industry.

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Canadian Transport Minister Omar Alghabra (right) told the CBC that proof of vaccination is the country’s clear path to restoring confidence in air travel, ultimately helping the ailing tourism industry.LARS HAGBERG/AFP via Getty Images

“I’m familiar with individuals who have been looking forward to traveling,” Alghabra said. “They were worried about getting on a plane because they’re not sure if they could contract COVID.”

Meanwhile in the United States, a country where 800,000 people have died of COVID-19 and just over 70 percent of the country has had one jab of a vaccine, there is no vaccine or testing requirement to fly. Travelers are asked to fill out a self-health assessment before they board a plane. That’s it. Asymptomatic or symptomatic, vaccinated or unvaccinated, your flight is now boarding.

Lawmakers have attempted to address the need for airline vaccinations with the US Air Travel Public Safety Act, introduced by California Senator Dianne Feinstein in September. On Monday, four Democratic lawmakers urged federal agencies to require airline passengers to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test to board domestic flights. In a letter to CDC director Rochelle Walensky and FAA administrator Steve Dickson, lawmakers wrote that the measure “would improve public health and address concerns that passengers have about flying.”

“Ensuring the health and safety of air travelers and their destination communities is critical to mitigating the ongoing COVID-19 surge, especially as the virus continues to evolve,” read the letter from Feinstein and Representatives Eric Swalwell of California, Don Beyer of Virginia, and Ritchie Torres of New York.

The idea of a vaccine mandate has proven unpopular with airline CEOs who have spoken out against it, travel trade organizations, and Republicans who have politicized the issue. Even requirements for vaccinating airline employees have been met with opposition by conservative lawmakers and some unions. But several surveys have found that travelers would feel more comfortable if airlines required passengers to be vaccinated.

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A study released this month by MMGY Global, a travel marketing company, found that 64 percent of respondents believed airlines should require all passengers to be fully vaccinated to fly domestically, and 67 percent believed the requirement should be in place for international travelers. Another survey from the financial website FinanceBuzz found that 47 percent of passengers would be more likely to fly domestically if airlines began requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination.

“We already have to show ID to get onto the plane,” said Sam Scarpino, managing director at the Rockefeller Foundation and an assistant professor in the Network Science Institute at Northeastern University. “Showing a vaccination card can be part of that process. We have to take our shoes off. We have to go through metal detectors and body scans. It’s not as if there’s any shortage of precedent around the rules being different when you’re confined in a tight space with others for hours.”

Scarpino, who said he can see the “COVID walls closing in” as the number of breakthrough cases grows, isn’t as concerned about travelers contracting the virus on planes as he is about them spreading it to other parts of the country via domestic travel.

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“We should be past the point of having this conversation,” he said. “The seriousness of Delta, the seriousness of Omicron, should have already pushed the industry and the government into action on this issue.”

Airlines already have protocols and systems in place for travelers to upload images of their vaccination cards to websites, and, because most countries require travelers to be vaccinated before they arrive (including the United States), showing vaccination cards to airline staff before boarding is already a common practice. There is nothing arduous or groundbreaking about introducing a vaccination mandate to fly. It’s simply another layer of much-needed protection to help the country survive what appears to be a bleak winter.

It’s best to ignore the tone-deaf claims of the Southwest and American CEOs, and instead listen to Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who is a proponent of both wearing masks on planes, and, just as importantly, requiring a vaccine to fly.


Christopher Muther can be reached at christopher.muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther and Instagram @chris_muther.