What the COVID-19 vaccine could mean for the future of travel

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  • The travel industry is torn on whether or not to make the coronavirus vaccination mandatory.
  • Qantas has said it would likely require passengers to have proof of a COVID-19 vaccination before allowing them to fly internationally.
  • However, a blanket vaccination requirement raises a few issues, especially considering how long it could be until everyone has access to a vaccine.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that “travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19.”
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

When news of successful COVID-19 vaccine trials hit, the world, ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, finally saw some light at the end of the tunnel.

In fact, many travelers immediately started researching their next trips, as travel search engines like Skyscanner reported huge traffic spikes as the vaccine news broke.

The UK has already started dispensing Pfizer’s vaccine to frontline workers and the elderly, while the US is waiting on the go-ahead from the FDA. That said, it may be months before young, healthy members of the public have access to a vaccine and potentially years until vaccines are available to everyone in the world.

That raises major questions about what COVID-19 vaccines could mean for the travel industry.

Airlines are private companies and could require travelers to have a COVID-19 vaccine before flying

Soon after news of the vaccines broke, Qantas said it would likely require passengers to have proof of a COVID-19 vaccination before allowing them to fly internationally.

However, to date, it’s the only airline that has made such an announcement.

Delta’s CEO, Ed Bastian, said on TODAY that he could see such a requirement being instituted on international flights, though he said it may come from international authorities rather than from airlines.

Jill Chung, a spokesperson for Korean Air, similarly said that airlines may require vaccinations in the future, per AP, but added that this would likely be due to governments making the call in order to open borders and lift quarantine requirements.

Airports Council International (ACI), which represents all of the world’s airports, has not committed to making COVID-19 vaccines a requirement, instead suggesting that airports should be able to choose between tests and vaccination, according to Reuters.

Its main fear is that a vaccine requirement, especially during the period before vaccines are widely available, might dissuade people from traveling and further damage the already ailing industry.

“Just as quarantine effectively halted the industry, a universal requirement for vaccines could do the same,” Airport Council International’s director, General Luis Felipe de Oliveira, told Reuters.

Testing is “more critical to reopening borders than the vaccine,” International Air Transport Association (IATA) director Alexandre de Juniac told Reuters. The IATA is a trade group that represents 290 airlines globally. 

The IATA’s medical adviser, David Powell, echoed this and said in a virtual IATA meeting in November that airlines and governments need to work together to come up with standardized testing protocols that will eliminate quarantine and help open up borders.

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Representatives for IATA, ACI, and the Cruise Lines Association did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.

Countries requiring certain vaccines before entry is nothing new

While many destinations make proof of a recent negative COVID test mandatory, to date, no country has announced plans to make proof of a vaccination mandatory. 

The idea of countries requiring proof of certain vaccinations is not new. For example, dozens of countries require travelers to be vaccinated against yellow fever before they can enter.

“Ultimately, it’s up to governments to determine when and how it is safe to reopen borders and we continue to work closely with authorities on this,” Air New Zealand said in a statement, per AP.

A blanket vaccination requirement raises a few issues

There will be passengers who – for medical, religious, or personal reasons – may choose not to get vaccinated.

It could be a continuation of the pushback airlines saw when requiring passengers to wear face masks. Delta, United, and Alaska Airlines had to ban over 900 people who refused to comply, the Washington Post reports. Widespread requirements for showing negative test results led to a black market for forged papers.

Some worry that a vaccine requirement might also discriminate against those who may not have easy access to good healthcare, turning travel into a matter of privilege.

Questions of vaccines’ longevity also remain. According to the Washington Post, “Scientists still don’t know how long vaccine-induced protection will last, for example, or whether inoculations can block actual infection, or only prevent the onset of disease.”

Digital health passports may help provide some level of standardization

Digital health passports are mobile apps that allow travelers to upload proof of vaccinations and coronavirus test results in a safe and encrypted way. More and more of these are entering the market.

CommonPass is designed to establish a common international standard for health data – from lab results to vaccination records – and can provide airlines, border controls, and governments with test results and passenger health information via a personalized QR code.

“What CommonPass does is set up a framework for people to have their COVID tests and vaccination results in a secure place in order for them to pass across a border without sharing their personal health information,” Thomas Crampton, CommonPass’ chief marketing and communications officer, previously told Insider.

However, the app is currently only available through airlines trialing it.

Similarly, Health Pass by CLEAR, a company best known as a way to get through airport security more quickly, links biometric information to certified documents, such as health questionnaires, vaccination records, temperature checks, and COVID tests, according to CNBC.

The IATA is currently in the final development phase of its own digital passport, called the IATA Travel Pass, which should be available in the next few months.

Like CommonPass, the IATA Travel Pass will create a personalized QR code with test results and proof of vaccination, which travelers will use at check-in to make sure they’re in compliance with entry regulations at their destination.

As vaccines become more commonplace, airlines and governments will have to decide whether to make vaccinations mandatory or not, as well as compile a standardized list of which vaccines and tests will be globally accepted.

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