Amid vaccine hopes, airline travel requirements spark global debate

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
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Aviation industry’s opposition to requiring mandatory COVID-19 vaccination for passengers has intensified as impending drug approvals trigger a debate over their role in air travel.

The Airports Council International (ACI), which represents airports worldwide, has joined most airlines in calling for a choice between testing or vaccination, arguing that a rigorous pre-flight vaccination policy would be as harmful as quarantines.

Last week, Australia’s Qantas Airways sparked the debate when it said that a COVID-19 vaccination will be mandatory for passengers on its international flights, which remain largely idle due to tight border controls by the country.

But other airlines, and now global airports, are worried that waiting for vaccinations will make it difficult for people to fly before they are fully implemented, crippling business in regions with relatively limited domestic aviation markets such as Europe.

Luis Felipe de Oliveira
World Director General

“Just as quarantine effectively halted the industry, a universal requirement for vaccines could do the same. 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.”

Australia has indicated people arriving from abroad will need to be vaccinated or to self-isolate in one of a limited number of hotels.

Qantas Chief Executive Alan Joyce said the policy could expand to other nations, considering that proof of vaccination for yellow fever is already necessary for certain destinations. “Other governments are moving in that direction,” he said.

But the head of the airline trade association IATA (International Air Transport Association), which downgraded its financial outlook for the sector last week as a second wave of COVID-19 cases swept Europe and the United States, claims that it will not work internationally to make vaccinations compulsory.

Differing opinions

IATA Director General Alexandre de Juniac said that systematic testing is more critical for reopening borders than the vaccine.

Shukor Yusof, head of Endau Analytics, a Malaysian aviation consultancy, said Southeast Asian countries can take different approaches to the requirements for vaccines. Asian countries have some of the lowest case numbers of the novel coronavirus globally.

Taiwan Health Minister Chen Shih-chung said that COVID-19 “passports” to show inoculation and infection history are a good idea, but hard in practice. While Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for a common set of global recognitions for COVID-19 vaccines.

Some experts say vaccines will be difficult to mandate because of limited supply and a range of quality.

Dr. David Freedman, a US infectious diseases specialist, believes more countries will follow Britain’s lead and use testing to reduce quarantine times.

“For the majority of the world’s population, especially in the developing world, it’s going to be years before everybody that wants to fly even has the possibility of getting the vaccine,” said Dr. Freedman.

As more countries develop vaccines, airlines and governments will need to decide which ones to clear. “The other issue about mandatory vaccines is going to be, well what vaccine did you get?” Dr. Freedman said. “Do we trust every vaccine that’s made in the world?”