Vaccination requirements are coming for air travelers

The government is considering strict new rules for passengers. Here's what to expect.

It's a question of when — not if — vaccine requirements are coming for air travelers. 

Canada will start mandating vaccinations for travelers no later than October. Several cruise lines, including Royal Caribbean, have ordered that passengers over 12 get their shots.

And now, the U.S. government is considering a vaccine requirement for airline passengers. In an interview last week, Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to the president, said he would support vaccine requirements for air travel. The Biden administration’s recent statements also suggest that a vaccine mandate is en route.

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So what does that mean for you? When and how will these mandates go into effect? Specifically, will you need to be vaccinated to travel for the holidays?

When are vaccination requirements coming to air travel?

Soon, probably. The federal government, which regulates commercial air travel, has clear jurisdiction here (more on that in a minute). It can require you to wear a mask — which it already does. It can definitely mandate a vaccination, and it probably will.

I put this question to our Friday Forum, and we had a far-ranging discussion about the timing of the vaccination requirement. An overwhelming number of readers supported the idea.

Based on statements by government and health officials, it seems the earliest we could expect a vaccination requirement would be mid- to late-October. But there's some concern that a requirement would put a damper on holiday air travel, and I think officials are keen to avoid that. It's far more likely that a vax-or-be-grounded order would be issued for January, when fewer people travel.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Should the U.S. government require vaccinations for air travelers? If so when? I’m interested in your opinion.

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Will the government require vaccinations for domestic or international flights?

Both. The administration has already discussed travelers to be vaccinated before boarding an international flight to the U.S., according to reports. (France, Germany, Italy and Spain already require vaccines for inbound visitors.) The idea is still under consideration. Officials have been vague about whether vaccinations would be mandated for domestic or international flights — or all flights.

Based on the chatter, it looks like the government will push for a universal vaccination requirement for all air travel. 

How do I know? I don't. But when enough people start talking about a universal vaccination requirement for air travel — health officials, government, industry experts — this is how it usually goes. 

What if COVID cases start to fall?

It probably wouldn't matter. Infection rates are still high and appear to be leveling off, but they're too high for government epidemiologists to say the worst is over.

An administration as cautious as this one may ignore falling case numbers, remembering the unrealistic optimism that led it to this point in the pandemic. In other words, their minds may already be made up about a vaccine rule for domestic air travelers, despite their assertions to the contrary. We'll see.

Does the government have the authority to require vaccines on flights?

Yes — and then some. 

Not only does the federal government regulate air travel in the United States, but there's also a legal precedent for requiring vaccines. In 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court asserted a theory of limited government and set standards to safeguard individual freedoms. Justice John Marshall Harlan, who wrote the majority opinion in Jacobson vs. Massachusetts, noted that the liberty secured by the Constitution "does not import an absolute right in each person to be at all times, and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint."

If you think this is any different from the smallpox controversies of a century ago, let me excerpt from the case I just linked to:

Antivaccinationists launched a “scathing attack”: compulsory vaccination is “the greatest crime of the age,” it “slaughter[s] tens of thousands of innocent children,” and it “is more important than the slavery question, because it is debilitating the whole human race.” The antivaccinationists gave notice that compulsory powers “will cause a riot.” 

Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Will you need a vaccination to travel for the holidays?

It's possible. The Biden administration is moving quickly to contain the delta variant. Although cases have leveled off, it hasn't cooled the enthusiasm of health officials to get as many people vaccinated as possible. Travelers are, of course, at the front lines of this effort. The CDC already has two sets of standards when it comes to traveling — one for the vaccinated, the other for the unvaccinated.

I was surprised when several readers told me they thought a vaccination requirement should be immediately implemented for air travelers. That could mean there's broad support for such a requirement.

If it happens, and you aren't vaccinated, I have some bad news: You may have to rethink your holiday travel plans. Flying might be out.

But what about the exceptions?

Children under 12 still can't be vaccinated, so there would probably be a waiver for kids, at least for now. People with medical disabilities who can't be vaccinated would be exempt. And it wouldn't surprise me if there were also a religious exemption for people whose faith prevents them from getting vaccinated. Maybe, maybe not. Authorities sometimes conclude that the potential danger of a disease outweighs the religious exemption, as they did in the 1991 measles outbreak in Philadelphia

Knowing what we do about the current administration, I think there will be few if any exemptions to the vaccination requirements for air travel.

So now what?

If you haven't gotten your COVID shots and are considering flying anywhere — even domestically — now may be the time to get immunized. You'll probably have to show proof of vaccination the next time you board a flight, and there will be few exceptions to the rule. Or none at all. 

I'm almost hesitant to ask what you think about vaccination requirements for air travelers. But here goes anyway. Do you support the requirements? Do you think they're misguided and illegal? Please be kind to each other in the comments. We're all on the same plane.

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About the art

Artist Dustin Elliott says the goal of his painting was to capture the worries of the upcoming vaccination requirements. "Doubt, anxiety, and restlessness can be seen in these subjects' eyes as they watch the clock tick," he says. "They skeptically expect their imagined civil liberties to erode and eventually disappear into oblivion."