As the pandemic continues to ravage across the world, the painfully slow rollout of COVID-19 vaccines and the lack of an efficient system to track who’s inoculated and who’s not means that the global travel industry is about to lose another summer.
In an interview with CNBC this week, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, who recently lost his mother to the coronavirus, said he hopes some sort of “proof of vaccination” will be made available for travelers soon to help reopen the economy. Virgin Group owns stakes in three operating airlines (Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Australia and Connect Airways) and an upcoming cruise line.
“Vaccination is everything. Once vulnerable people, in particular, have been vaccinated, I think all kinds of businesses can start opening up again: restaurants, travel companies, cruise companies,” Branson told CNBC on Tuesday.
“Hopefully there will be a proof-of-vaccination piece of paper that people can use to be able to get on a plane without having to be tested or without having to quarantine,” he added.
Virgin isn’t the only travel company exploring the concept of vaccination passports. Last week, American Airlines announced a “health passport app” that will allow prospective passengers to upload COVID test results, vaccine records and other documentation required to travel. The app is expected to launch as soon as this weekend (January 23). United Airlines and a number of other carriers experimented with a similar system called CommonPass late last year.
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Outside the travel industry, the World Health Organization, as well as major tech companies, including Microsoft, Apple and Google, are also working on vaccine passports, according to CNBC.
However, given the current progress of vaccine distribution, universal use of vaccine passports or immunization certificates is unlikely to happen anytime soon. For one thing, the type of vaccines approved for emergency use varies from country to country; there are no global standards on what dosage intake (Can you make do with one dose of a two-dose vaccine?) is safe enough to travel; and scientists have yet to find out whether a person can still spread the virus after vaccination. And more simply, vaccinations continue to lag as vaccine makers and distributors are struggling to ramp up supply in face of dire shortages.
And there’s no guarantee that it will actually boost travel. “It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card,” Daniel Burnham, an operations specialist with the airfare booking site Scott’s Cheap Flights, told Travel + Leisure magazine in December. “Part of it will also be what can you do when you get to where you’re going? There’s a lot of places I would feel safe to go and safe to fly there, but if you can’t do what you want to do in a destination… that will hold people back…There will still be a patchwork for a long time.”
Meanwhile, major airlines and cruise companies are grappling with growing losses inflicted by pandemic restrictions. On Thursday morning, United Airlines posted a $2 billion loss for the fourth quarter of 2020, missing Wall Street’s lowest estimate.