Divided we travel this fall

As vaccine mandates take hold, a new class system is emerging

If you've already had your shots, you'll be able to get a table at République, one of my favorite bistros in Los Angeles. If not, and if the L.A. Board of Supervisors passes a measure before it this month, then you'll be out of luck. 

No baguettes for you, peasant.

New COVID rules are popping up everywhere. Last week, as I already reported, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced the U.S. Air Travel Public Safety Act, which would create a national vaccine verification standard and impose a vaccination or testing requirement for airline passengers. 

And you've probably heard about United Airlines requiring all of its employees to get vaccinated. Reason to fly the vaccine-friendly skies, maybe?

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I used the word "peasant" intentionally. That's because it's beginning to feel like travelers are divided into two groups — vaccinated and unvaccinated.

  • The vaccinated enjoy the same access to facilities and services as they had before the pandemic. They can fly, stay in hotels, eat in restaurants and attend concerts. They’ve earned their privileges by getting inoculated.

  • The unvaccinated, or those who can't show they've recovered from COVID, are severely limited in where they can go and how they get there. Airlines and other forms of mass transit may soon turn them away. They can't eat inside a restaurant. No concerts or indoor public events for them, either. 

The travel industry in general — and the airlines in particular — have long been busy creating "haves" and "have-nots." Their practices are market- and finance-driven: Companies unbundle services for the "lower classes," monetizing everything from seat selection to in-flight meals.

But while the divide between the vaccinated and unvaccinated looks similar on the surface, its underlying basis is a public health concern, not marketing or finance, as commenters pointed out in our debate on Friday.

But the travel industry is going to happily heed the "divide" order because it's a government license to keep doing what they have been doing all along. And while that may help curb COVID — which is a good thing — I worry about the long-term effects on the travel industry. 

Before we continue, I’d love to get your opinion. Do you think segmenting travelers is a good idea? Or should someone draw a line?

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Class division is in the travel industry's DNA

The travel industry can't help but separate its customers. It's been doing so since Neanderthals opened the first bed and breakfast in a Pixberg cave. 

Since then, segmentation has evolved into a fine art. Airlines have three and sometimes four distinct classes of service. Hotels offer standard rooms and suites on special floors with "executive" lounges. Car rental companies greet their best customers at the airport terminal and hand them the keys to their luxury automobile — no need to stand in a long line with the riffraff.

My problem with the travel industry's class system is that the masses in the bleacher seats are too often subsidizing the privileged few in the luxury boxes. And not just by giving up amenities that would be required for a more civilized trip. They are doing so by paying for their carry-on bag or shelling out late fees on their points-earning credit cards. The entire system is problematic on many levels. 

Some may love it, but I think it's still being run by Neanderthals.

We could argue about the wrongness of this ad infinitum. But for now, let's agree on this: The travel industry loves its class system. It will accept these new COVID divisions like cavemen dines on freshly killed mammoth. 

It wants to separate us.

More divisions lie ahead

It's not just Los Angeles that's about to require proof of COVID vaccination. New York City, New Orleans and San Francisco are, too — all major tourist attractions. Observers expect more U.S. cities to follow. 

And let's be clear about how that will play out. When New York imposed its proof of vaccination, enforcement was lax. But now, after the delta variant caused another spike in cases, I've been hearing from travelers who say they have to show cards to enter museums and restaurants. The requirements may not seem like a big deal at first. But at some point, you won't be able to do much of anything without a card. 

Hello, vaccine passport

I'm on record as a supporter of vaccine passports. And I think people should be getting immunized as soon as possible. But could the travel industry take this too far? 

We have one chance to get this right

Lawmakers don't want to see that happen. Sen. Feinstein's proposed law includes a provision to show a negative test result before boarding a flight as an alternative to proof of a COVID vaccine. That's more expensive for the passenger, but at least it doesn't force someone who can't or won't get two slugs of Pfizer to stay home.

But what would the travel industry do with government permission to segregate even more? It's not hard to imagine hotel sections for people who don't have shots. Do you think they'd be on a desirable floor? Would there be a surcharge to stay in one? Punitive fees to clean the rooms after you stay in them?

What if you're unvaccinated and try to fly? Could airlines add a fee to your ticket if you just show a negative test result, as opposed to a vaccine passport? 

Something tells me the travel industry would gladly perpetuate a class system that already works for them. It would no doubt profit from it, too. With maybe one or two exceptions, it has a DNA-level aversion to equality. 

But it doesn't have to be this way. Now is the time to think about how we are separating ourselves and allowing ourselves to be separated. I believe everyone should get vaccinated. But what is the price of segregating an already segregated group of people? 

Do you think excluding the unvaccinated from travel is a prudent step or the first step toward a deeper class divide? What, if anything, should we do about it?

Leave a comment

About the art

In illustrating the equality of the vaccinated, artist Dustin Elliott, turned to propaganda posters of the mid-20th century for inspiration. "The colors and dark theme remind me of the plight of the working men of the eastern bloc who just want to move on with their lives and keep working the fields," he says. With the bizarre imagery of syringes protruding from their heads, he also took a jab at anti-vaxxers who draw offensive parallels between the 20th-century dictatorships and vaccine requirements.