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Omicron is spreading. Biden needs to give airline travelers a vaccine mandate...

Date: December 22, 2021

Roger Rapoport Dec. 22, 2021 San Francisco Chronicle

Each time President Biden takes off on Air Force One, everyone on board has been fully vaccinated and tested negative for the coronavirus. So why should it be any different for you and me when we’re headed to Pocatello or West Palm Beach?

Unlike America’s principal trading partners, such as Canada, Great Britain, the European Union and countries across the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific, passengers in this country who board a domestic flight to any state (other than Hawaii) do not have to show proof of vaccination or test negative.

On a recent trip to London and Amsterdam, I needed a vaccination certificate to board my flights from Michigan to England, as well as a ship to the Netherlands. On the way home, everyone on our plane had to test negative 24 hours before boarding and foreign travelers needed to show proof of vaccination.

Back in Chicago, meanwhile, as the coronavirus’ omicron variant surged, I boarded a domestic flight totally unable to avoid any unvaccinated passengers in my midst.

Our government’s continued failure to protect public health on common carriers in the United States demonstrates the awesome power of airline lobbyists, who have won over $79 billion in federal payroll support, grants and loans since COVID-19 began.

At the same time the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is requiring employers with more than 100 workers to mandate vaccination or weekly coronavirus testing, the White House refuses to extend this rule to domestic airline passengers. Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Steve Dickson, a former top executive at Delta (the airline not the variant), insists the FAA is “not a public health agency.”  

Over the next few months all flight crews will be vaccinated or tested weekly. Domestic passengers, meanwhile, will remain exempt.

This makes about as much sense as requiring flight attendants to wear seat belts while allowing passengers to fly unbelted.

Our government’s poorly thought-out domestic passenger exemption, fought for by the airlines and some of their unions, contradicts the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advice to all Americans: “Do not travel internationally until you are fully vaccinated.” Instead, it supposedly protects the bottom line of carriers worried about losing the business of unvaccinated passengers.

This double standard underscores the tortured logic of airline executives working at companies like United, where employee vaccination is required. They contend flying on a packed elbow-to-elbow flight is safer than sipping tea in your own living room.

Unpersuaded by this argument, some passengers I know are staying home rather than flying domestic routes. They don’t want to risk being infected by potentially contagious passengers who refuse vaccination despite overwhelming scientific evidence of its safety and efficacy, based on nearly 9 billion jabs worldwide.

Understandably, these fearful fliers worry about contact with hundreds of other potentially infectious passengers at airport check in, baggage drops, boarding lounges, jetways and airport transit systems. Six feet of separation from unvaccinated people is impossible in this environment.

Despite the spread of the new omicron variant, some airline CEOs even argue that current safety requirements on flights are an unnecessary burden. At a Senate hearing on Dec. 15, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said: “I think the case is very strong that masks don’t add much, if anything in the air cabin environment.”

Kelly’s view was seconded at the same hearing by American Airlines CEO Doug Parker: “An aircraft is the safest place you can be.”

Evidence suggests otherwise — for a variety of reasons. In the pre-COVID era from 2007 to 2017, the International Air Transport Association reported unruly passenger events were averaging about 6,600 annually worldwide.This year there have been an astounding more than 5,600 unruly passenger incidents on American carriers, including Southwest and American. Over 1,000 cases are now under investigation, up more than five-fold from 2020.

Often, the trigger is a dispute over onboard mask requirements.

“The level of unruly behavior is much higher than I have ever seen it,”Transportation Security Administration Administrator David Pekoske said in a recent interview.

Another problem is the record seizure of nearly 5,700 guns, 85% of them loaded, at TSA checkpoints in 2021. Dallas, home to Kelly and Parker’s airlines, ranked second, just ahead of Houston.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that a quick study of those being prosecuted for attacking flight crews over mask mandates and attempting to pack heat on board would indicate that many of these angry passengers are unvaccinated. If I’m right, the White House would have another compelling reason to require domestic travelers to show proof of vaccination.

While the airlines continue to resist a domestic passenger vaccine mandate, Southwest’s Kelly offered a mea culpa two days after that Senate hearing. Speaking on behalf of America’s airlines he endorsed “the current federal (mask) mandate at airports and on airplanes.”

Kelly was unable to deliver his about-face in person because, explained an airline spokesperson, he had come down with COVID shortly after returning home from our nation’s capitol. “Gary is doing well and currently resting at home. He has been fully vaccinated and received the booster earlier this year.”

Frequent flier Roger Rapoport is the co-author of aviation books “Angle of Attack” and “Grounded With Captain Shem Malmquist.” His new Bay Area novel, “My Search for Sarah Price” is out next year.

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