When you go to the airport, you see two kinds of security rules. Some apply equally to everyone; no one can carry weapons through the TSA checkpoint. But other protocols divide passengers into categories according to how much of a threat the government thinks they pose. If you submit to heightened scrutiny in advance, TSA PreCheck lets you go through security without taking off your shoes; a no-fly list keeps certain people off the plane entirely. Not everyone poses an equal threat. Rifling through the bags of every business traveler and patting down every preschooler and octogenarian would waste the TSA’s time and needlessly burden many passengers.
The same principle applies to limiting the spread of the coronavirus. The number of COVID-19 cases keeps growing, even though remarkably safe, effective vaccines are widely available, at least to adults. Many public agencies are responding by reimposing masking rules on everyone. But at this stage of the pandemic, tougher universal restrictions are not the solution to continuing viral spread. While flying, vaccinated people should no longer carry the burden for unvaccinated people. The White House has rejected a nationwide vaccine mandate—a sweeping suggestion that the Biden administration could not easily enact if it wanted to—but a no-fly list for unvaccinated adults is an obvious step that the federal government should take. It will help limit the risk of transmission at destinations where unvaccinated people travel—and, by setting norms that restrict certain privileges to vaccinated people, will also help raise the stagnant vaccination rates that are keeping both the economy and society from fully recovering.
Flying is not a right, and the case for restricting it to vaccinated people is straightforward: The federal government is the sole entity that can regulate the terms and conditions of airline safety. And although air-filtration systems and mask requirements make transmission of the coronavirus unlikely during any given passenger flight, infected people can spread it when they leave the airport and take off their mask. The whole point of international-travel bans is to curb infections in the destination country; to protect itself, the United States still has many such restrictions in place. Beyond limiting the virus’s flow from hot spots to the rest of the country, allowing only vaccinated people on domestic flights will change minds, too.
Polls suggest that vaccine holdouts have a variety of motivations: genuine concerns about side effects; skepticism of shots not yet fully approved by the FDA; a general aversion to vaccines; a desire to stick it to the libs; a reluctance to decide—even now. In a recent New York Times and Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 46 percent of unvaccinated people who consider themselves in the “wait and see” category disclosed that they would stop waiting if they could get a shot from their personal physician. Forty-four percent agreed that the FDA’s full approval of the vaccines would motivate them. And 41 percent said that a prohibition on airline travel would get them closer to their shots. Tellingly, 11 percent of those adamantly opposed to vaccination would also be motivated by a travel ban—a larger effect for these respondents than full FDA approval or the ability to get vaccinated at their doctor’s office would have. More than another recitation of statistics about vaccines’ benefits or yet another appeal to the common good, the deprivation of movement will win over doubters. Some unvaccinated Americans in areas where vaccination seekers face scorn among their peer group may even be happy to have an excuse to protect themselves.
The public debate about making vaccination a precondition for travel, employment, and other activities has described this approach as vaccine mandates, a term that, to conservative critics, suggests that unvaccinated people are being ordered around arbitrarily. What is actually going on, mostly, is that institutions are shifting burdens to unvaccinated people—denying them access to certain spaces, requiring them to take regular COVID-19 tests, charging them for the cost of that testing—rather than imposing greater burdens on everyone. Americans still have a choice to go unvaccinated, but that means giving up on certain societal benefits. Nobody has a constitutional right to attend The Lion King on Broadway or work at Disney or Walmart. Employers and entertainment venues are realizing that they can operate more easily without the hassle of planning around unvaccinated employees and customers. Amid a global health crisis, people who defy public-health guidance are not, and do not deserve to be, a protected class.
For the privilege of flying, Americans already give up a lot: We disclose our personal information, toss our water bottles, extinguish our cigarette butts, and lock our guns in checked luggage. For vaccinated people, having to show proof of vaccination when flying would be a minor inconvenience.
The Biden administration could give unvaccinated Americans a brief window in which to get shots. A travel rule that took effect by October would cover those who hope to visit relatives during the holiday season. Vaccine verification and legitimate exceptions for age or preexisting health conditions can be part of airline databases, as are other security features. The current reliance on paper vaccination cards makes for a clumsy system, but better public- and private-sector systems are likely to emerge if employers, entertainment venues, and the TSA all seek to verify individuals’ status. Some people may try to lie and cheat their way around a TSA requirement, but violating federal aviation-safety measures is generally a crime.
Relying so heavily on mask requirements to protect the flying public has had a distinct downside. The duty of preventing viral transmission has fallen to gate agents and flight attendants, who must enforce mask rules, and whom angry passengers have in turn subjected to harassment. Moreover, masks can provide protection only during a flight, but for passengers, the whole point of flying is to take part in life outside the destination airport’s grounds. By requiring proof of vaccination for flights, the U.S. government will better protect society and get out of the business of helping the coronavirus proliferate in another place. People who still want to wait and see about the vaccines can continue doing so. They just can’t keep pushing all the costs on everyone else.