The tipping point for the cruise industry occurred last month when the CDC permitted cruise ships to sail, provided that 95% of the passengers and 98% of the crew were fully vaccinated. Since that time, cruise bookings have skyrocketed, and deep discount pricing is becoming increasingly rare. The CDC has also given cruise lines more freedom to determine the masking and social distancing safeguards that they will require onboard, if everyone is vaccinated.
Airline passengers deserve the same privileges. They could get them if airlines were permitted by the CDC and FAA to declare some flights “Vaccinated Passengers Only” (VPO). On the VPO flights, airlines would determine the masking and social distancing safeguards that govern the flights. The only unvaxed passengers that would be permitted on VPO flights would be children too young to be vaccinated and others with medical exemptions from vaccination requirements.
The children and guests with medical exemptions would have to be always masked; although, masks with a small hole to accommodate a drinking straw would be permitted. To prevent strife in the airports, VPO flights will only able to be booked and ticketed online by the passenger or a travel advisor.
Ticketing a VPO flight will require the flier to submit proof of being fully vaccinated. At first, before virtual health passports are available, vaccination cards will have to be transmitted to the airline along with a photo ID; both of which will be included printed as part of the ticket. Passengers would have to agree that if their “proof” is fraudulent, an additional charge of at least $500 can be added to the same credit card and authorities will be notified that the passenger used invalid credentials. If the fraud is discovered before the flight, the passenger would not be permitted to board.
Cockpit officers and flight attendants would be able to bid for VPO flights. These might be very popular since the crew would not be required to wear masks or face shields, unless they wished.
Initially, airlines could designate only some of their flights as being VPO. But there would be nothing to stop them from making all their flights VPO, which is what some airlines may want to do immediately. Cities too, can request that airlines only land VPO flights at the local airport. Since the major benefit of VPO flights is assuring that unvaxed fliers cannot spread infections, this idea is not as Orwellian as it first appears. Just as staff and children that have not been vaccinated against polio and smallpox aren’t permitted in local schools, why shouldn’t local airports be protected against spreading COVID-19?
Before vaccines were available, Australia had nearly eliminated COVID-19 by restricting domestic and international travel, locking down states where the coronavirus broke out. Despite a fatality rate that has approached zero for several months, when the virus reoccurred in the state of Victoria (Melbourne) this month, they had to lock down the city once again. While no one is sure what caused the breakout, the two major suspected culprits were travel resurgence despite most Australians being unvaccinated and the season in which the outbreak occurred.
It’s winter in Australia, which is when the virus most easily spreads. According to the Guardian,” An estimated 70% of infected individuals do not pass the virus on to anybody else, and research has shown that around 20% of the people—so-called “super-spreaders”—are responsible for the vast majority of viral transmission.”
Victoria’s Acting Premier, James Marlino, noted that the “serial interval”—the time between successive Covid-19 cases—has dropped from a typical five to six days, down to as little as one day. The Guardian quotes other authorities as saying: “The Victorian lockdown is a reminder that among a largely unvaccinated population, a sense of complacency may be premature… The most effective way of dealing with this [in future] is to get vaccinated.”
The message from Australia is clear: If future breakouts and lockdowns are to be avoided in the US, a vaccinated population and a means of limiting domestic travel to vaxed persons are both essential.
The International Air Transport Association [IATA] has warned:
- Pre-COVID-19, passengers previously spent an average of about 1.5 hours in travel processes—including check-in, security, border control, customs, and baggage claim—for each trip.
- Current data indicate that airport processing times are up to three hours during peak time, with travel volumes at only about 30% of pre-COVID levels.
- Processing times could reach 5.5 hours per trip at 75% pre-COVID traffic levels, and 8 hours per trip at 100% pre-COVID traffic levels.
Offering airline passengers, the option of VPO flights is the best way of preventing these longer wait times that would be catastrophic for ticket sales.
Simplifying Cruise Line Regulations Still Further
The concept of forcing cruise lines to undertake “simulation cruises” was set in place during the final days of the previous administration, as a means of preventing the departing bureaucrats from resuming cruising until the more precautions were in place. When simulation cruises were initially proposed, few even dreamed that within less than a year, most U.S. residents would be fully vaccinated.
Now the concept of simulation cruises threatens to do the opposite: Eliminate the requirement to have all guests and crew members fully vaccinated before a cruise can begin.
The first Royal Caribbean simulation cruise that’s proposed for late June will only be for three days, with two of the three days spent boarding and disembarking in the home port. The remainder of the time will be a “Cruise to Nowhere,” since visiting no other destinations will be attempted. Royal has pulled these off in Singapore and Saudi Arabia, but they’re hardly a test of the most critical safety procedures.
These procedures will not test what occurs in port towns when several cruise ships visit, especially if unvaccinated (but tested) crew members and guests are on board. It also doesn’t test cruises that last for several weeks, and include the full mix of dining and entertainment possibilities available to genuine passengers.
Perhaps most tellingly, the simulations shift the burden of coping with health emergencies to the passenger; leaving the cruise line absolved of any responsibility for what happens during or after the “free” simulation cruises. The “Terms & Conditions” in the cruise contract now absolve the cruise line of responsibility if anything goes wrong.
If simulation cruises are to be attempted at all, they should involve fully vaccinated guests and crew members; and follow the same routes that are scheduled for the remainder of the cruise season. They should test how well the cruise lines and CDC’s recommendations work in real situations. Cruise lines should charge for the revised simulation cruises and should mandate medical insurance with COVID coverage. MSC has been providing this insurance for about $30 a day.
They should also not require that guests exempt the cruise line from the responsibility of providing safe passages. Rather, simulation cruises should operate as maiden voyages have done in the past. Completing the simulation cruises should not entitle cruise lines to any exemptions from public health safeguards—certainly not from the responsibility for assuring that all guests and crew members are fully vaccinated. That would be a huge step backwards for everyone.
Dr. Steve Frankel and his wife have cruised on most of the Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal, Azamara, Oceania, Regent, and Windstar ships. He writes a weekly column, Point-to-Point, for Travel Research Online (TRO) that’s read by more than 80,000 travel advisors and industry leaders. Steve is the founder of Cruises & Cameras Travel Services, LLC. He has been recognized as a “2021 Top Travel Specialist” by Conde Nast Traveler magazine and a “Travel Expert Select “by the Signature Travel Network. His specialties are luxury small-ship cruises and COVID-19 safety measures, and has a doctorate in Educational Research with minors in Marketing and Quantitative Business Analysis. He’s also earned a Certificate in Epidemiology from Johns Hopkins University. Previously, he managed qualitative and quantitative research in the private & public sectors. He’s a member of the Los Angeles Press Club, and has written 13 books and hundreds of articles. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.