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Will You Have to Get a COVID-19 Vaccine to Fly?

Cartoon Coronavirus COVID-19 Mascot Person Character Arrival to Airport with Brick Wall extreme closeup. 3d Rendering
By Andrew Leonatti on December 08, 2020 1:08 PM

Air travel continues to be one of the industries that have been hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic. International travel has crawled to a virtual standstill as countries close their borders, and many Americans remain too nervous about infection to board domestic flights despite mask requirements and other safety measures.

But what if airlines started leaning heavier into vaccines — once they are available — and testing as part of their safety programs? Can airlines legally require COVID-19 tests and vaccines to allow you to take to the skies? It's looking that way.

Pre-Flight Testing Already Happening

Desperate to get international travel humming again, airlines are starting pilot programs for pre-flight testing on some international routes.

Delta, United, and American Airlines are all piloting testing programs. For example, passengers on Atlanta-to-Rome Delta flights will be able to avoid a 14-day quarantine in Italy if they test negative 72 hours before departure, before boarding in Atlanta, on arrival in Rome, and again before departure back to America.

On all U.S. flights that are testing this method, passengers must participate or be assigned to a different flight.

Are Mandatory Vaccines Coming?

Many are starting to speculate that once vaccines are widely available to the flying public, airlines will require them. Australia's Qantas Airways and South Korea's Korean Air have both spoken recently about requiring proof of vaccination for international flights.

In America, Delta Airlines CEO Ed Bastian said last week that while his company had yet to decide, he envisioned vaccination becoming a requirement for international travel, "whether it's the airline that does it or some international authorities do it."

But the International Air Transport Association, a global airline trade group, argues that broad testing is more important, and rolling out a worldwide "vaccine passport" would be extremely difficult.

These moves may not be necessary if governments require new arrivals to present proof of vaccination before entering their reopened countries.

Are Mandatory Vaccines or Testing Legal?

In a word, yes.

Here in America, and most countries, airlines have broad latitude in deciding who can and cannot board. Airlines cannot violate anti-discrimination laws, such as denying boarding because of a passenger's race or religion.

However, crews can deny boarding to almost any passenger who they feel poses a danger to other passengers. This could include the unvaccinated or untested, just as you cannot bring a lighter or a weapon into the passenger cabin.

Barring federal regulations to require airlines to allow boarding to those who refuse to vaccinate or get tested, which would almost certainly bring about litigation, there is not much a passenger could do to get around an airline's vaccination or testing requirement if one is put in place.

And with a majority of Americans favoring vaccine requirements for flying, it is possible that airlines will try to match that sentiment. (These airlines, however, would probably hope for a government order so they can avoid being the bad guy when denying boarding.)

A ticket is a contract between passenger and airline, with all of the lengthy terms and conditions that come with it. Make sure you understand what you are agreeing to before you buy!

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