LaHood’s warnings are the White House’s latest case in the face of pressure from allies and stakeholders to take control of a metastasizing pandemic that has increasingly dominated the administration and its goals. Last week, Biden announced he would implement an aggressive policy requiring federal workers and contractors to be vaccinated in addition to requiring private companies employing more than 100 people to vaccinate their employees or subject them to weekly tests. . However, there was no policy regarding air travel and the ability to require travelers to prove vaccination prior to boarding.
Industry officials have resisted such a demand, saying it is not easy to implement and would require additional and expensive infrastructure. And inside the White House, some fear it will prove cumbersome and only marginally effective in increasing vaccinations.
Among the largest airlines, there does not appear to be a consensus on mandatory vaccines for travelers. Airlines are comfortable with the current state of the mask mandate, according to a lobbyist close to the aviation industry. But airlines have been reluctant to get involved in what has become political debates regarding the coronavirus pandemic, the person said.
Questions also arise about the role of the federal government in implementing mandates. Civil liberties groups have raised privacy concerns about any centralized vaccine database maintained by the federal government. And this is something the White House has already said it will not support.
LaHood said airlines may also consider requiring passengers to show proof of vaccination before boarding. He said some airlines would likely resist as they did when he was in administration and moved forward with a passenger bill of rights.
“They backed off a lot, but we moved forward,” LaHood said. “The way I would do it is call all the CEOs of the airlines to a meeting, invite them to a Zoom call and say ‘look, we think this is another way to get the country vaccinated and to stop the spread of Covid. “And just listen to them. But make the decision to go ahead. You don’t surprise them.
White House officials say they have not ruled out any political initiatives that would help contain the pandemic. At the same time, discussions around airline policy have so far focused on international travel. When asked if a system involving domestic travel could be put in place, officials said they are now focusing on policies from last week’s tenure, which they say are already a huge undertaking to set up operationally.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki did not say on Wednesday whether the president supported national warrants for air travel. She did not provide details on the level of discussions on the issue within the administration.
“There is still a series of discussions on what additional measures can be taken by the federal government to protect us all from Covid, to reduce the spread,” Psaki said. “What we decided on last week is that putting these mandates and requirements in place for businesses would have the greatest impact in helping reduce the spread of Covid, protect more people and save more lives. . “
This week, Biden’s senior medical adviser Anthony Fauci said airline passenger warrants were a good idea, while White House Covid response team chief Jeff Zients said that nothing was on the table and pointed to actions already taken such as fines on those flouting mask requirements.
“We have a very strong track record… which shows that we are pulling the available levers to acquire vaccines and we are not taking any action on the table,” Zients said.
But White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain told Pod Save America on Monday that he believed the most effective way to use vaccine requirements was one in a more “permanent situation.” As in a workplace rather than adding a layer of bureaucracy that could penalize those who are already vaccinated.
“We want to weigh the number of people [who] … getting vaccinated versus vaccine burden – having to show proof every time you get on a plane, having to wait in longer lines at TSA, ”Klain said. “But I think it’s something we’ll continue to look at as things progress.”
Despite comments from Fauci and Zients, some stakeholders said the administration had not engaged in meaningful discussions with the airline industry on prioritizing the need for a vaccine for domestic air travel. mandates.
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) Said the resounding defeat of California Governor Gavin Newsom in a recall attempt on Tuesday was a sign that Biden has the political backing to go further on the mandates, including on domestic flights.
“We have to own up to the outrage,” Swalwell said. “We cannot do enough to get out of this pandemic hell. “
The polls also showed growing support for vaccine mandates as a whole as well as specific support for vaccine mandates for air travelers, which are already in place or under development in other countries. Last month, Canada announced that by fall, all air, rail and cruise passengers will need to be fully immunized.
Australian airline Qantas said last week it would require proof of vaccination for all its passengers traveling abroad. Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said that while the airline’s policy was still ongoing, it would only carry vaccinated passengers in the future. “Because we believe that will be one of the requirements to show that you are flying safely and entering these countries,” Joyce said at a Trans-Tasman Business Circle forum. “We hope that can happen by Christmas.”
US-based airlines have not ruled out putting in place policies requiring proof of vaccination to travel. And some are already encouraging travelers to use the technologies they’ve developed to help upload and share relevant information. American Airlines and United, for example, each offer passengers ways to download vaccination cards, their origin and the destination of their trip. But there is no requirement that they show their vaccination status before boarding a plane, unless they are traveling to a country that requires vaccination against COVID-19.
But private industry, in this case, seems to be waiting for the federal government to act first. In a discussion with NPR, Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines, called vaccination warrants for travelers a “government problem,” but noted the company had the means to extend a proof of vaccination standard.
“In order for us to do that, we would probably need some kind of government directive,” Kirby said on Friday. “We have prepared ourselves with the technology so that we can download vaccine cards, track them and implement them if the government ever chooses to go in that direction. “
The pandemic-related restrictions on air travel are a costly proposition, which has already upset the Biden administration. In July, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said she was advocating easing some of the restrictions on international travelers, a sentiment two industry lobbyists said the White House viewed as self-employed.
Vaccination warrants on air travelers could also hurt the airline industry’s bottom line. On the one hand, airline bookings have declined. The Covid-19 Delta variant effectively halted a nascent recovery in bookings for the U.S. airline industry, with growth slowing during the summer months at a time when airlines were trying to return to 2019 travel levels.
But if carriers decide to put data systems in place, more US citizens could travel overseas. Airlines for America, for example – the trade group of major US airlines – has publicly called for a scientific framework to accelerate the recovery of international travel.
“US airlines have been – and continue to be – strong advocates of a risk and data-based approach to safely resuming international travel, as outlined in the plan,” said the president and chief from A4A executive Nicholas Calio in July.
“We have relied on science throughout this crisis, and research has consistently determined that the risk of transmission on airplanes is very low,” Calio said, citing data from an October 2020 study. of the Harvard Aviation Public Health Initiative which found that being on an airplane is safer than routine activities “like eating out or going to the grocery store.”
The science of transmissibility on board airplanes, however, is far from settled.
Several studies have shown that the risk of transmission of Covid on board planes is low, citing the powerful air filtration systems of planes and the constant wearing of a mask on board. But other researchers have found apparent cases of widespread transmission in airplanes. Additionally, a CDC study from last year that modeled ways to reduce transmissibility on board found that blocking the middle seats could reduce the spread of Covid by up to 57%, although this study looked at those who did not wear masks.
“The science is clear – it is time, if not over, for the US government to take action and reopen travel between the United States and low-risk countries,” Calio said.
Laura Barron-Lopez contributed to this report.