Last week, Canada announced that it will require all domestic air passengers to be fully vaccinated by fall. It’s a tough stance from a country that has a higher vaccination rate and a much lower Covid-19 infection rate than the United States.
Air Canada, the nation’s flag carrier and largest airline, called the mandate a “welcome step forward in the evolving measures to protect the health and safety of airline employees, customers and all Canadians.”
Don’t expect U.S. carriers to react that way should a similar requirement be imposed south of the Canadian border. While there is no vaccine mandate for domestic air travel in the United States, airline executives have consistently balked at even mandatory pre-flight testing for passengers. They have also argued that the current mask mandate on flights should be allowed to end.
U.S. airlines have not squawked publicly about introducing Covid-related restrictions for international travelers entering the U.S., but they have vocally resisted holding American travelers to the same standards.
Since January 2021, passengers flying into the U.S. from other countries have been required to show a recent negative PCR coronavirus test before boarding the plane. A few weeks after that order took effect, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and key Biden officials, including U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttegieg, signaled that the administration was considering a similar testing mandate for domestic air travelers. But that plan never materialized. That’s because airline CEOs set up a virtual call with the White House’s Covid-19 response coordinator to strongly push back against pre-flight testing for domestic flights, according to a Reuters report at the time. “Such a mandate would be counterproductive, costly, and have serious unintended consequences,” said a letter from Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly to U.S. President Joe Biden.
Earlier this month, after the U.S. announced that it is working on a phased approach to require foreign visitors to be fully vaccinated, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby told CNN he did not anticipate a vaccination requirement for travel within the United States, saying “it’s a government question, but I suspect that it won’t happen domestically.”
U.S. airline executives and airline union leaders have argued that any additional Covid-19 restrictions for domestic flyers would be bad for business, resulting in fewer people willing to fly, and ultimately putting jobs at risk. But what if they have it backward and the opposite were actually true? What if a vaccine mandate would encourage more, not fewer, people to fly? And equally important, what if such a mandate encouraged more Americans to get vaccinated?
Airlines saw some signs of recovery when Covid-19 infections were dropping earlier this spring and summer, but now that the delta variant is driving case numbers back up at an alarming rate, the industry’s rosy outlook is dimming. Last week, Southwest Airlines warned that it was seeing flatlining bookings and increased cancellations. Earlier this month, budget carrier Frontier Airlines tamped down its forecast for the third quarter and warned of decreasing demand.
Americans are paying very close attention to the delta variant and beginning to break travel plans based on Covid-19 infection rates, per the latest Harris Poll. When asked if they found a great airfare deal to a location that was experiencing a spike in Covid cases, 68% of respondents said they would pass while less than a third would definitely (14%) or probably (17%) jump at the opportunity.
Meanwhile, as more Americans have gotten vaccinated against Covid-19, public support for vaccine mandates has only become stronger. In May, when Covid-19 cases were falling in the United States, two major surveys — from Gallup and Ipsos— revealed that a majority of U.S. adults (57% and 61%, respectively) believed that vaccine passports would be effective in making travel and large events safe.
Three months later, in an early-August Harris Poll Covid-19 tracking survey, nearly two-thirds of Americans (64%) support introducing a vaccine passport for flying on an airplane, with those who “strongly support” such an initiative outnumbering those who “somewhat support” it by more than two to one.
This month, three U.S. airlines — United Airlines, Frontier Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines — announced vaccine mandates for their employees.
If the Biden administration takes an additional step, imposing a vaccine mandate for passengers, it could motivate a significant share of unvaccinated Americans (50.9%) to get their Covid shots, suggests a survey from the Upgraded Points travel site. Notably, a majority of respondents (55%) say travelers should have to prove that they have been vaccinated, compared to 45% who say companies should merely rely on the honor system.