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Travelers across the country saw their holiday plans derailed over the past two weeks thanks to thousands of canceled flights partially caused by airline staffing shortages related to the spike in COVID-19 infections driven by the Omicron variant.
That massive disruption, along with broader concerns about rising cases nationwide, has reignited an ongoing debate over whether the United States should issue a vaccine mandate for all air passengers. The U.S. currently requires all noncitizens to prove they’re vaccinated before entering the country. All incoming international travelers, regardless of citizenship status, must also provide a recent negative COVID-19 test. But, with the exception of flights into Hawaii, no such rules exist for domestic flights. In response to the Omicron-fueled wave, Puerto Rico recently created a requirement for incoming travelers to show a negative test, taken within two days of arrival, or face a $300 fine.
Last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci said the U.S. should “seriously” consider extending the vaccination requirement to include domestic flights, but later that same day suggested it was unlikely to happen “in the reasonably foreseeable future.” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also said a mandate was under consideration but is “not something we're revisiting right now.”
Why there’s debate
The Biden administration’s hesitancy to issue a vaccine mandate for domestic flights has frustrated some health experts and Democratic lawmakers, who argue that it could significantly curb the spread of the coronavirus. “It only makes sense that we … ensure the millions of airline passengers that crisscross our country aren’t contributing to further transmission,” wrote California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who in September proposed a bill that would require vaccination or a negative test for all air passengers.
Advocates also say a mandate would help prevent future disruptions caused by major outbreaks among airline staff, who — though mostly vaccinated themselves — are forced to interact with large numbers of unvaccinated passengers on a daily basis. The prospect of not being allowed to fly might also convince at least some unvaccinated people to finally get the shot, others argue.
Like all vaccination mandates, a potential requirement for air travel has been portrayed as an infringement on personal rights by many conservatives. But, beyond that, there are also doubts about how much it would actually prevent the virus from spreading. The CEO of American Airlines said a plane is “the safest place to be” because air inside the cabin is refreshed so rapidly. A mandate wouldn’t prevent vaccinated passengers with breakthrough infections from traveling, an issue that’s become more of a concern due to the Omicron variant. There are also worries that enforcing a mandate would put extra burden on already-strained airport staff, causing even more delays and cancellations.
No one in the administration has definitively closed the door on the possibility of an air travel vaccine mandate sometime in the future, but Fauci said the state of the pandemic would have to change “dramatically” for one to be put in place.
A vaccine mandate would improve the safety of millions of people every day
“Air travel is a funnel point through which millions of Americans pass each week. Requiring vaccinations would save lives and help to end the pandemic.” — Editorial, USA Today
Air travel will continue to be a mess without a passenger vaccine mandate
“Right now, most of the shutdowns that you will see will be from attrition because people cannot work because they've been exposed and they got COVID-19. And it's even infecting vaccinated people and people who have a booster — basically it's going to take a lot of people out of commission. And the only way to protect our industries, our work and our economy is to mandate vaccines on airplanes and schools, etc.” — Ali Mokdad, epidemiologist, to CNN
Enforcing the mandate would be much easier than critics claim it would be
“Our policy on domestic air travel is just silly. This is a space where we are accustomed to rules, where we already take off our shoes and relinquish our bottled beverages.” — Editorial, NJ.com
The mandate would convince some people to finally get vaccinated
“If proving one’s vaccination status were required to board a plane or take an interstate train or bus, many vaccine-refusing Americans would face a choice between remaining unvaccinated and being able to travel conveniently. … [Some] may decide it’s finally time to do the right thing and take advantage of these safe, free and effective vaccines, and encourage their constituents to do the same.” — Ezekiel J. Emanuel and John P. Moore, Washington Post
The Biden administration is putting airlines’ profits over public health
“Our government’s poorly thought-out domestic passenger exemption, fought for by the airlines and some of their unions, contradicts the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advice to all Americans: ‘Do not travel internationally until you are fully vaccinated.’ Instead, it supposedly protects the bottom line of carriers worried about losing the business of unvaccinated passengers.” — Roger Rapoport, San Francisco Chronicle
Planes not entirely risk-free
“Airlines say that their passenger cabins have excellent ventilation systems and studies support the assertion that they aren’t recirculating the virus. But no matter how excellent the air quality may be, passengers sitting close together may still be exposed to one another directly. Masks aren’t foolproof and must be removed for eating and drinking, which is still allowed on planes.” — Editorial, Los Angeles Times
COVID transmission risk is low on an airplane
“Of course airplanes, thanks to their ventilation systems, are the opposite of superspreader sites.” — Peter Tonguette, Washington Examiner
Enforcement of the mandate would be a logistical mess
“Get ready for a snarled mess at airports around the country if airlines are forced to verify that passengers are vaccinated.” — Theo Wayt, New York Post
A mandate wouldn’t stop people with breakthrough infections from spreading the virus
“The problem is that though the vaccines greatly reduce the severity of symptoms, they don’t prevent the vaccinated from contracting the virus. So it’s not at all certain that a mandate for passengers would make an appreciable difference.” — Steve Chapman, Chicago Tribune
Requiring a negative test would get similar results without the need for a full mandate
“At the very least, Biden should extend that 24-hour testing requirement to all domestic air travel. Doing so would also give the administration a roundabout way to encourage vaccinations. How? By exempting passengers who have gotten vaccinated and had a booster shot from that testing requirement.” — Editorial, Boston Globe
Evidence that Omicron may be less severe undercuts the argument for more mandates
“Omicron so far has caused mild cold-like symptoms such as congestion, sore throat, and muscle aches in those who have contracted it. As the virus weakens, leading to less hospitalization and fatality, and herd immunity hastens given Omicron’s high transmissibility, it may be harder for public-health experts to argue that mandates are needed to ‘protect’ people from serious infection.” — Caroline Downey, National Review
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