Feb 13, 2021

Vaccinations could soon replace testing, quarantines for cruises, international travel


The American Queen Steamboat line will require passengers to be vaccinated

"Vaccinations will be key to the reopening of borders and to enhancing travel confidence." Goh Choon Phong, CEO of Singapore Airlines.

Will U.S. airlines require passengers to have COVID-19 vaccinations to board domestic flights? Doubtful. The CEO of United Airlines says he wants to make the vaccine mandatory for employees, yet his airline, along with other U.S. carriers, opposes any suggestion of requiring negative Covid tests, let alone vaccinations, from the flying public.

How is it that people will feel more apt to fly knowing that the crew has been vaccinated, but their fellow passengers board with nothing more than a temperature check?

It makes no sense, which is why when it comes to restarting international travel as well as cruising, it's going to be one or the other, but not neither.  

I expect most cruise lines to eventually follow the lead of  the American Queen Steamboat Company and its sister company Victory Cruise Lines which will require all guests and crew to be vaccinated against COVID-19 for all sailings, starting in July.

Once vaccinations are widely available, most foreign countries will likely adopt rules similar to what Iceland (currently closed to residents of the U.S., Canada and the UK) requires. That is a double COVID-testing procedure (on arrival and five days after) along with a quarantine of 5-6 days UNLESS travelers arrive with a certificate of previous COVID-19 infection or a certificate of vaccination.

Iceland's Covid travel policy

Governments are free to come up with their own entry a requirements, of course, and some will be more lenient or restrictive than others, but proof of vaccination and/or a negative test seem certain to become standard practice once international borders reopen. Some might require both, especially if ongoing research determines that people who have been vaccinated can still carry the virus and transmit it to others. The state of Hawaii, which requires travelers to have proof of a negative test to avoid quarantine, is weighing whether or not to waive test requirements for those who have been vaccinated.  

This brings us to what travel promoters are hyping as "health passports." Rest assured, there will be no "passport" guaranteeing anyone entry across any border, or offering assurance that the rules won't change between the time you arrive and depart.

What various airlines and travel organizations aim to come up with is a digital wallet where you could permanently store your testing and vaccine records.

Etihad Airways and Emirates will start using a digital travel pass, developed by the International Air Transport Association, to help passengers manage their travel plans and provide airlines and governments documentation that they have been vaccinated or tested.

The challenge is creating a document or app that is accepted around the world, that protects privacy and is accessible to people regardless of their access to smartphones.

In the meantime, it would seem wise for U.S. airlines to stop fighting the suggestion that passengers test negative for COVID-19 before boarding domestic flights.

Finding a way to assure passengers that everyone on the plane has been tested would seem  to boost confidence in air travel, but U.S. carriers believe it would discourage travel, or at least that's the excuse for not wanting to bother.

A coalition of airline, travel and aerospace industries and union and airport groups have urged U.S. President Joe Biden not to impose testing requirements, arguing that domestic testing requirements could cause logistical havoc and further reduce demand. 

Sorry guys, but half-way measures like temperature checks,  enhanced cleaning, new filtration systems and empty middle seats just won't cut it. 

Harvard University researchers agree. They endorsed the idea of rapid testing of passengers in a recent report.

"Viral testing is an important public health screening mechanism that can quickly and efficiently identify those with infections and stop them from undergoing activities that could expose others, including potential travel,'' Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in a summary of the 262-page report.

Requiring testing for all travelers would not guarantee a plane full of virus-free passengers but may serve a "critical need'' in identifying asymptomatic passengers and keeping them off planes, reducing the risk of transmission, the report concluded.

Rather than kicking and screaming about how costly and inconvenient test requirements would be, a better idea would be for U.S. carriers to follow the lead of Delta Airlines. Delta is pro-actively looking into in-home testing options for passengers departing to destinations, such as Hawaii, that require negative tests. It's also partnering with hotels outside the country that have on-site testing (required to reenter the United States). 

Delta's Covid map

Still a work in progress is a shaded map showing what countries are open to visitors, are open with restrictions or have restricted entry. Can you guess the names of the four countries that currently carry no restrictions on travel? One is in North America, another in Eastern Europe and two are in Africa. 

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