We’ve been living in a pandemic for over a year and a half, and in that time we’ve learned a lot about the novel coronavirus and it’s many variants. And while misinformation and outright lies about COVID-19 are still pervasive, there’s plenty of facts scientists and infectious disease experts know to be true: COVID is five times deadlier than the flu, more contagious than the chickenpox, and is an airborne virus mostly spread between unvaccinated people who do not wear masks.
Now that the United States is experiencing another “wave” of COVID-19, even though a number of safe and effective vaccines are readily available, a variety of businesses and institutions are requiring employees, patrons, teachers, and students to show they’ve been vaccinated. For example, New York City will mandate vaccinations for indoor dining, workouts, and entertainment venues. President Joe Biden now requires all federal workers to show proof of vaccination or submit to frequent COVID-19 testing, and businesses like Shake Shack are also requiring all customers and employees to be vaccinated.
It begs the question: Will airlines be next? The airline industry — which received a $25 billion federal bailout in 2020 — has not yet required travelers to prove they’ve been inoculated before boarding a flight. Currently, over 2 million people are flying every single day, leaving many to wonder if airline companies will join the fold and start mandating vaccines prior to booking a flight.
Recently, United Airlines announced that it would require all employees to be vaccinated by Oct. 15 or within five weeks of the Federal Food and Drug administration (FDA) fully approving the vaccines — whichever comes first. “We have no greater responsibility to you and your colleagues than to ensure your safety when you’re at work, and the facts are crystal clear: Everyone is safer when everyone is vaccinated," Scott Kirby, United Airlines’ chief executive, and Brett Hart, president of United Airlines, wrote in a memo shared with staff, as reported by The New York Times. If employees do not comply, they will be fired.
Delta Airlines requires new employees to be vaccinated, but has not enforced a vaccination mandate on existing employees, per the same Times report. And Alaska Airlines does not require employees to get vaccinated, and says that while they “highly encourage” travelers to get vaccinated, they do not require it in order to fly with the airlines; American Airlines will not require its workers or customers to get vaccinated, either.
But, why the lag in vaccine requirements? In an interview with New York Times’ Kara Swisher, American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said that the airline industry has generally dismissed the idea of requiring customers to get vaccinated — either now or in the future. And on Aug. 3, during an interview with CNBC, Delta Airlines CEO Ed Bastian said, “It’s very difficult for us to come in and mandate a vaccine that isn’t even federally approved yet — the authorization hasn’t been final yet.” Instead, Bastian says that airlines will continue to "encourage" people to remain safe.
Despite his answer, it's hard to understand the delay, considering the fact that the vaccine did already receive emergency authorization for us, and the FDA is reportedly speeding up the full authorization process for the two-shot Pfizer vaccine right now. In a written statement, FDA leadership “recognized that approval might inspire more public confidence” and that they’re going to take an “all-hands-on-deck approach” to the process that was originally believed to take until the fall to complete. Now, the FDA hopes to fully approve at least one vaccine by Labor Day, if not sooner.
What is perhaps most important to note here, though, is that while most viruses do not easily spread on flights (due to the air circulation system found on planes), COVID-19 is different. Since it is impossible to social distance on a flight, you’re at a higher risk of contracting COVID on an airplane, especially during a long-haul flight. There are steps you can take to mitigate the risk, however, including wearing a mask, limiting the amount of carry-on luggage, pointing the air nozzle directly at your head and keeping it on at all times, and staying seated whenever possible. Currently, masks are required on all flights, though notably not always enforced.
The best defense against contracting COVID-19 on a plane, however, remains the vaccine — currently, 90% of United Airlines’ pilots and 80% of their flight attendants have been fully vaccinated, according to the airline. United Airlines is offering their pilots and flight crews extra pay if they show proof of vaccination, and on Aug. 11, Etihad Airways, an international airline based out of Abu Dhabi, announced it was “the first airline in the world with 100% vaccinated crew on board,” per The Washington Post.
Here’s hoping that, one day, there will be a fully-vaccinated flight.