WELLINGTON – International air travel could come booming back next year but with a new rule: Travelers to certain countries must be vaccinated against the coronavirus before they can fly.
Encouraging news about vaccine development has given airlines and nations hope they may soon be able to revive suspended flight routes and dust off lucrative tourism plans. But countries in Asia and the Pacific, in particular, are determined not to let their hard-won gains against the virus evaporate.
In Australia, the boss of Qantas, the country's largest airline, said that once a virus vaccine becomes widely available, his carrier will likely require passengers use it before they can travel abroad or land in Australia.
Qantas Chief Executive Alan Joyce said he's been talking to his counterparts at other airlines around the world about the possibility of a “vaccination passport” for international travelers.
“We are looking at changing our terms and conditions to say for international travelers, that we will ask people to have the vaccination before they get on the aircraft,” Joyce told Australia's Network Nine television.
He said they were looking at ways to electronically verify that people have the necessary vaccine for their intended destination, a difficult task.
"But certainly for international visitors coming out, and people leaving the country, we think that’s a necessity,” he said.
South Korea's largest airline has a similar message. Jill Chung, a spokesperson for Korean Air, said Tuesday there’s a real possibility that airlines will require that passengers be vaccinated. She said that's because governments are likely to require vaccinations as a condition for lifting quarantine requirements for new arrivals.
While Korean Air is reviewing several possibilities for screening, any change by the company or other airlines would be the result of coordination with governments, Chung said.
“This is not something for airlines to independently decide,” she said.
Air New Zealand echoed Chung's position.
“Ultimately, it’s up to governments to determine when and how it is safe to reopen borders and we continue to work closely with authorities on this,” Air New Zealand said in a statement.
Australia, South Korea and New Zealand have all managed to minimize the spread of the virus. They are seen internationally as success stories, and a big part of their containment effort has focused on keeping infectious people out.
Australia has imposed some of the most severe border restrictions in the world since the pandemic began. It has closed its borders to most international visitors and allowed its own citizens to travel internationally only under special circumstances. New Zealand has also closed its borders, while South Korea has imposed a two-week quarantine on all arriving passengers.
Australia, with 26 million people, has reported about 900 deaths since the pandemic began, fewer than many nations its size. South Korea, with 51 million people, has reported a little over 500 deaths. And New Zealand, with 5 million people, has reported just 25 deaths.
Chung said there are already a variety of discussions within the industry to ensure safer travel during the pandemic. These include trials of “Common Pass,” an app endorsed by the World Economic Forum that aims to provide a standardized format for airlines to evaluate the coronavirus test results of passengers to determine whether they should travel.
“With the world coming closer to coronavirus vaccines and negative tests also becoming requirements for lifting travelers from self-quarantines in countries across the world, airlines are feeling the need for an effective system to screen passengers for vaccinations and tests,” Chung said.
Several companies have been testing possible virus vaccines with encouraging early results. Many people are hoping that vaccinations will become widely available next year, paving the way for a broader reopening of international air travel.
Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt told reporters Tuesday there had not been a decision yet on border or re-entry rules around potential vaccines.
“Our task is to provide the vaccine to all Australians,” he said.
Kim reported from Seoul, South Korea.