Will vaccine passport requirements be a shot in the arm for air travel?

The CEO of Delta Air Lines was interviewed by NBC’s Lester Holt about air travel during the pandemic. Safety measures were discussed to reassure travelers that precautions are still in place to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. The topic of vaccine passports entered the discussion – will they be required on domestic flights?

Ed Bastian told Holt that, at least for now, vaccine passports will not be required for domestic air travel. International flights will likely require them, though. ‘I don’t see that happening in the U.S, but I think internationally that’s probably going to be a requirement.’ With summer vacations on the minds of travelers and businesses looking to get back to normal, the airlines are hoping to reverse sagging sales and lost profits due to the pandemic. Bastian looks forward to the day when travelers are comfortable being maskless and selling middle seats happen again.

Bastian also tells Holt that Delta will block middle seats until the end of April and that the company is ‘not ready to make’ a decision on selling them again. But he explained: ‘We’re going to sell it once people continue to gain confidence in travel, we’ll have no choice but to sell and give them the opportunity to sit in the middle seat.’

On the future of mask mandates, Bastian says: ‘Once the virus is in a contained form, you’re probably going to still see some customers wearing masks.

‘But I hope once we’re confident as a society that we’ve conquered this virus, that we’ll be able to return to life as we knew it and that will include being able to fly safely on planes without having to wear masks.’

He says: ‘There’s not a safer form of transportation you’ll find than in our airplanes with our [hospital-grade] Hepa filtration systems, enforcement of masks, middle seats being blocked, space aboard.

Do people really want to sit in the middle seat? Maybe it’s just me but that is the least desirable choice of seats. It certainly cuts into the bottom line, though, when middle seats aren’t sold. Airlines pack passengers in like sardines to make as much off each flight as possible. Bastian understands the anxiety felt by fliers. He reassured viewers that flight crews are doing “a great job.” He predicts business travel will lag behind leisure travel by as much as a year or two.

‘Our team’s doing a great job. We’re proud of the work they’ve done and confidence is being restored, but I do appreciate the anxiety, and you see it even with road warriors, as they get back out for the first time into the airports and in the skies.’

He continues: ‘As we move forward, right now we’re not seeing much business travel. We’re down… probably still about 80 per cent, but as we get to the late summer in the fall, and again as vaccinations grow as our country starts to reach herd immunity, hopefully by early this summer, businesses are coming back.

Airline leaders want some involvement from the White House moving forward. Vaccine passports have been in the news for months. Most of the reporting has centered on international requirements for vaccine documentation by other countries. Such requirements are already in place. So, will Americans tolerate it? The Biden administration is weighing the possibility of a federal standard for documentation with the possibility of discrimination against disadvantaged groups and privacy concerns. Digital credentials are being tested in New York, for example, with its “Excelsior Pass”. This allows theaters and venues like Madison Square Garden to move ahead with their reopenings. Hawaii is developing a version of its own to allow visitors to skip the state’s mandatory 10-day quarantine. The travel industry wants a uniform standard, not a patchwork of varying levels of documentation.

“We need some leadership from the federal government,” said Marcus Plescia, the chief medical officer of Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, noting unchecked, rapid deployment could result in a passel of systems don’t talk to one another.

The White House says the government shouldn’t issue the credentials or store the data. But it’s held discussions with tech firms on how a passport system might work, asking for details about whether pharmacies and other establishments might provide the necessary data. The Department of Health and Human Services has also sought input from 25 federal agencies on the passports, including if they’d encourage their own employees to use them, sources familiar with the conversations say. HHS’ national health technology office declined comment.

“The right way is that it should be private, the data should be secure, the access to it should be free, it should be available digitally and in paper, and in multiple languages, and it should be open source,” White House Covid-19 adviser Andy Slavitt said on Monday.

Problems arise for those without access to cell phones or access to testing. They could be shut out of traveling or even shopping and school attendance if documentation is taken all the way across the spectrum. School districts already require vaccination documentation before children are allowed to enroll so maybe this will be an extension of that. There are privacy and legal issues emerging, too.

There also are privacy considerations. Requiring people to store test and vaccination results in digital format could expose them to the kind of data breaches that have proliferated during the pandemic. “We wanted data to reside on patients’ phone” as opposed to a database, where individuals can control the data, Kasim said.

Efforts to create passports could also run into legal barriers, said Rebecca Coyle, the executive director of the American Immunization Registry Association. Privacy laws restrict the kind of data some registries can share. Tech interests have asked the HHS national coordinator for health technology to issue national guidance so that “different solutions return the same information,” Coyle said.

Privacy issues and data breach concerns are to be expected. New apps will be developed to store documentation on smartphones. This is new territory involving medical records. I don’t imagine that anyone feels confident that the government can guarantee that everyone’s personal information will be safe in exchange for permission to travel, whether it is for domestic or international flights.