Fauci Supports A Vaccine Mandate For Domestic Air Travel—And So Do The Majority Of Americans

By Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, Forbes Staff
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says a vaccine mandate for U.S. air travel makes sense. (Photo by Erin Scott) Getty Images

Last week, the Biden administration ordered sweeping vaccine mandates for federal workers and businesses with more than 100 employees, but the government did not extend those mandates to air travelers.

Yet such a requirement for domestic air travel in the United States might still be in the cards. “We’re not taking any measures off the table,” Jeff Zients, White House coronavirus response team coordinator, told reporters when asked about mandates for travelers at a news briefing.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House chief medical adviser, recently voiced his support for a Covid-19 vaccination mandate for air travel. “I would support that if you want to get on a plane and travel with other people that you should be vaccinated,” he said in an interview for an upcoming episode of theSkimm’s Skimm This podcast.

Last month, Canada issued a vaccine mandate for all domestic plane, train and cruise ship travel. France has also made vaccinations mandatory for domestic flights. But while some U.S. airlines have issued vaccine mandates for their employees, airline executives have consistently pushed back against introducing additional frictions such as mandatory pre-flight testing for passengers. They have also argued that the current mask mandate on flights should be allowed to end.

Yet it’s debatable whether airline executives are reading the tea leaves correctly. Public support for a vaccine mandate for air passengers keeps growing, according to a recent Gallup poll. More than six in 10 Americans (61%) now support requiring proof of full vaccination before getting on a plane — up from 57% in April 2021.

“My take is that we have seen this kind of action from lots of industries who worry about mandates harming their business over the long run,” says Dr. Ashish Jha, Dean of the Brown School of Public Health. He recalls the pushback from the restaurant industry when smoking bans were implemented. “But all the evidence suggests that when you ban smoking inside restaurants and bars, the number of people who stopped going to bars and restaurants was small,” says Dr. Jha. “And that was actually more than made up by people who actually started going to restaurants and bars, because it became a more pleasant and safer experience.”

In other words, airline executives should consider the possibility that a vaccine mandate might actually be a boost for the industry. “I personally think that is the argument that needs to be made, and I think it's the right argument,” says Dr. Jha. “I understand many Americans are getting back on airplanes but there are so many Americans who have chosen not to fly because they're not convinced that it is safe. And if there were vaccine mandates, along with masking and other measures, it would create a level of safety that would bring a lot more consumers in and it'd be I think it would more than make up for people who chose not to travel. So that would be the argument.”

If given a choice between mandatory pre-flight testing or mandatory vaccinations, the airline industry would likely opt for the former. Interestingly, Delta Air Lines just released results from a study it conducted with the Mayo Clinic that demonstrated that Covid-19 molecular testing within 72 hours of an international flight’s departure lowers the risk of infection onboard.

But a vaccine mandate would be preferable to a testing mandate for one simple reason. “Because testing is leakier,” says Dr. Paul Offit, Director of the Vaccine Education Center and professor of pediatrics in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

“I mean, you get a test within a certain period of time. But then there's going to be a period of time between when you get the test and when you get on the plane,” says Dr. Offit. “So wouldn't it make infinitely more sense to have a vaccine mandate, which is going to give you a high chance of protection from that risk of serious illness?”

In recent months, Americans have grown much more worried about Covid-19, which is not good news for airlines. Concerns about contracting the coronavirus are at their highest level since January, with 41% of Americans now extremely or very worried that they or a family member would become infected — roughly double the percentage who were worried in June, according to a recent poll from the Associated Press and NORC at the University of Chicago.

For some health experts, a vaccine mandate is a logical step in a country where vaccine mandates are already commonplace in every U.S. state, especially if it were to encourage more Americans to get their shots.

“There's no good reason not to get a vaccine,” says Dr. Offit. “There's just a lot of bad reasons not to get a vaccine.”


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