Vaccine mandate for airline passengers still possible

Logistical hurdles would be fierce, say aviation leaders


National News

September 23, 2021 - 10:47 AM

WASHINGTON — The White House’s recommendation to require all visitors flying into the United States to provide proof of vaccination has sparked speculation over whether the federal government will ultimately require passengers on domestic flights to be vaccinated as well.

The speculation increased even before the new requirements when Dr. Anthony Fauci told podcast The Skimm earlier this month that he would support requiring vaccination for air travel. “If you want to get on a plane and travel with other people … you should be vaccinated,” Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a top medical adviser to the Biden administration, said.

White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients, announcing the international requirement Monday, fed that speculation by refusing to rule out an eventual domestic travel requirement. “We’re not taking any measures off the table,” he said.

But such a requirement has led aviation-related stakeholders to complain that the logistical hurdles would be challenging at best and a nightmare at worst.

For example: Who would check for proof of vaccination? What safeguards would be in place to ensure that the documents weren’t fraudulent? Would the paper cards currently given to the vaccinated suffice? 

What sort of central records exist to help airlines track if people are vaccinated? How would airlines handle children not yet eligible for such a vaccine? And would such a requirement extend to other sorts of travel, such as buses and trains?

“It should have been obvious a long time ago that it was going to be necessary to have a more reliable mechanism for authenticating immunization status than a flimsy, handwritten cardboard card — if only because other countries were likely to require it for travel, whatever we did in the United States,” said Julian Sanchez, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute.

He said such a process could’ve been done without requiring any kind of master federal database of who has been vaccinated. The CDC could have — and possibly still can — simply say that vaccine records have to be offered in both physical and digital forms by providers, and use any one of the various protocols already in existence for cryptographically authenticating the information on the record.

That model would’ve kept lists of the vaccinated with states and health care providers on a centralized database to authenticate the card was issued by a real provider and verify the printed information.

“It’s much trickier now, of course, because we’ve got tens of millions of people already vaccinated who’d have to be provided with updated records,” he said.

Lawmakers’ response to an air travel vaccine mandate ranged from ambivalence to outright opposition.

“I think that’s up to the airlines to decide for themselves,” said Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev.

Mandate opposition

“I don’t think the American people would stand for it,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

“I do not believe there should be any COVID mandates,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. “That means no vaccine mandates, that means no mask mandates, that means no vaccine passports.”

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