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The next vaccine mandate battle could focus on airline passengers

Date: September 13, 2021

By Olivier Knox, Washington Post

Over the past four days, the CEO of United Airlines seemed open to the idea of the federal government requiring vaccines for its passengers and the top U.S. infectious-disease specialist declared “you should be vaccinated” to board an airplane.

But
 there are reasons to doubt President Biden will race to impose a new mandate while his team is still working out how to ratify his requirement that companies with at least 100 employees ensure their workers are vaccinated or get a weekly test.

While that mandate seems broadly popular, the administration has its hands full trying to codify Biden’s announcement in regulatory language, which will then face a legal onslaught from Republicans opposed to mandatory mitigation efforts.

And it’s unclear how much support such a step would get from the airline industry, which has taken a financial beating during a pandemic that has claimed more than 660,000 lives in the United States.

On Friday, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby told NPR“I don’t think it’s appropriate for us as an individual business” to require travelers to get vaccinated — but seemed receptive to a federal mandate, saying his company was ready to implement such a step.

Mandating vaccines for passengers is really a government issue. For us to do that, we would probably require some sort of government directive,” he said.

That said, Kirby told NPR, “we have prepared ourselves with technology to be able to upload vaccine cards and track that and implement it if the government ever chooses to go in that direction.”

(You can skip the Scary Movie Organ Music: United, like other international carriers, has been wrestling with foreign countries’ vaccine requirements. The airline’s app lets passengers pick their destination then upload documentation they meet that country’s requirements. It wouldn’t take much to apply that same technology to domestic fliers.)

But Delta CEO Ed Bastian told CBS News in late August that while travelers face vaccine requirements to go overseas, they are unworkable for domestic airline passengers.

“As international borders open, you're going to see vaccination requirements continue to grow. Don't see that happening in the U.S., though,” said Bastian.

“Look at the logistical dilemma — we're carrying millions of people a week — of trying to figure out who's been vaccinated, who's not, who qualifies for an exemption,” Bastian told CBS News. “It would actually bottleneck the domestic travel system.” 

(Asked whether they supported vaccine requirements for passengers, Southwest Airlines and American Airlines directed The Daily 202 to the industry group Airlines for America. An Airlines for America spokeswoman sent a statement that did not take a position.)

White House in holding pattern

The White House seems, for now, to be keeping its seat belt attached and its tray table in the upright and locked position.

On Friday, Jeffrey Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, told reporters asking about a vaccine mandate for airline passengers “we’re pulling available levers to [require] vaccinations and we’re not taking any measures off the table.”

But Anthony S. Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview set to be released in full later this week he supports requiring airline passengers to get their shot(s).

“I would support that if you want to get on a plane and travel with other people, that you should be vaccinated,” Fauci told theSkimm.

Fauci reiterated that position in an interview yesterday with my colleague Hannah Sampson. “It’s on the table; we haven’t decided yet,” he said. “But if the president said, ‘You know, let’s go ahead and do it,’ I would be supportive of it.”

But an administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Daily 202 that Zients, not Fauci, better represented Biden’s current position.

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