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Mandatory Vaccines for US Airline Passengers?


Dawn Gilbertson / Bailey Schulz / USA Today

September 14, 2021


President Joe Biden recently announced sweeping federal vaccine mandates in a bid to get COVID-19 cases under control, a move that will likely require airline employees to be vaccinated or take weekly tests. But what about airline passengers?


Doctor Anthony Fauci, Biden's chief medical adviser and the nation's top infectious disease expert, thinks passengers should also be subject to a vaccine mandate in order to fly. "I would support that if you want to get on a plane and travel with other people that you should be vaccinated,'' Fauci said in a weekend interview.


President Biden hasn't publicly mentioned a vaccine mandate for flights but when asked about travel restrictions in a COVID-19 briefing Friday, Jeff Zients, the White House COVID-19 response team coordinator, said "Overall, I think we have a … very strong track record that shows we're pulling available levers to acquire vaccinations and we’re not taking any measures off the table.'' He pointed to the government's announcement last Thursday that fines will be doubling for passengers refusing to follow the federal mask mandate on planes and other public transportation (see below).


When asked about a possible vaccine mandate for domestic flights at a different briefing Friday, Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, said: "We are always looking at more we can do to protect and save lives. Obviously, he made a significant and bold announcement yesterday, so I don't have anything to predict or preview for you, but we’ll continue to look for ways to save more lives."


The idea of vaccine mandates for flights would not be ground breaking. Canada already requires air travellers to be vaccinated but U.S. airlines have generally been against a vaccination requirement for domestic travel, and repeatedly note that it's already a requirement for a lot of international flights because of countries' ever-changing entry requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic.



In an interview with CBS This Morning in late August, Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian said he doesn't see a vaccine requirement for U.S. flights happening. Bastian called it a "logistical dilemma" trying to figure out who among the millions of passengers the airline carries every week has been vaccinated, not vaccinated or is exempt from vaccination rules. "It would actually bottleneck the domestic travel system,'' he said.


Similarly, American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said in an interview with The New York Times last month it would be "incredibly cumbersome'' to check passenger vaccine status on flights within the United States.


"You can do this on international flights,'' he said in a recent interview. "There’s a lot of time between when the aircraft lands and when it takes off. We have to check passports and things as well. It wouldn't be physically possible to do without enormous delays in the [US domestic] airline system.''



Airline executives sounded a similar refrain when the idea of mandatory COVID-19 testing for flights within the United States was raised by a top official with the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said in late January. The idea was scratched a few weeks later after airlines pressed their case in a meeting at the White House.


When asked to comment on Fauci's support for a vaccine mandate for domestic flights, Airlines for America, the airline industry trade group, issued a statement on Monday highlighting the airline industry's safety protocols, from mandatory masks to cleaning. The group also noted that existing passenger vaccination rates provide another "layer of protection for the travelling public.'' But the group did not officially come out against vaccine mandates for domestic flights. However. the U.S. Travel Association, which promotes travel to the United States, did.


"U.S. Travel has long maintained that there should be no mandatory vaccination requirement for domestic travel," Tori Emerson Barnes, the group's executive president said in a statement. "Such a policy would have an unfair, negative impact on families with young children who are not yet eligible to get the vaccine."


President Biden directs TSA to double the fines on travellers who refuse to wear a mask while flying


President Joe Biden's latest executive order directs the Transportation Security Administration to double the fines travellers face who refuse to mask up in airports and "on certain modes of public transportation"


The TSA's travel mask mandate requires masks on aircraft, trains, buses and in airports and train stations. The mandate first went into effect in February and was recently extended until January 18, 2022 to "minimize the spread of COVID-19 on public transportation.”


The new fines for those who refuse to wear masks take effect Friday would be $500 to $1,000 for first offenders and $1,000 to $3,000 for repeat offenders. Children under the age of 2 and those with certain disabilities are exempt.


The executive order, announced Thursday, also ensures that masking requirements remain in place in other modes of transportation that do not fall under the TSA mandate.


"If you break the rules, be prepared to pay," Biden said during a press conference last Thursday. He went on to call passengers who have expressed anger toward flight attendants because of the masking rules "wrong" and "ugly."


Airlines began requiring masks early in the pandemic but have faced resistance from a minority of passengers. The FAA has so far reported 4,184 unruly passenger incidents on flights this year, 73% of which were related to the mask mandate. FAA regulations state that "no person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crewmember in the performance of the crewmember's duties aboard an aircraft being operated." So far this year, the agency has levied more than $1 million in fines against "unruly" passengers.



© Dawn Gilbertson / Bailey Schulz / USA Today

Images - © Kevan James






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