EU Pledges Unrestricted Travel For Vaccinated U.S. Travelers

Passengers wait at New York JFK.
Credit: Noam Galai / Getty Images

Airlines welcomed comments by European Commission (EC) President Ursula von der Leyen in which she said the European Union would allow unrestricted travel for U.S. travelers who have been vaccinated. 

However, carriers called for more clarity on travel plans and vaccination certificates, which are considered a key tool in an air transport recovery. 

“The Americans, as far as I can see, use European Medicines Agency-approved vaccines,” von der Leyen said during an interview with the New York Times on April 25. “This will enable free movement and the travel to the European Union. Because one thing is clear: all 27 member states will accept, unconditionally, all those who are vaccinated with vaccines that are approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).” 

IATA said it was “encouraged” by von der Leyen’s comments.  

“This is a step in the right direction,” IATA Director General Willie Walsh said. “It gives hope to people for so many reasons—to travel, to reunite with loved ones, to develop business opportunities or to get back to work.” 

He called for more details on the EC’s intentions. “To be fully prepared, it is imperative that the EC works with the industry so that airlines can plan within the public health benchmarks and timelines that will enable unconditional travel for those vaccinated, not just from the U.S. but from all countries using vaccines that are approved by the EMA,” Walsh said. 

British Airways CEO Sean Doyle also said there were opportunities for opening up U.S.-UK and U.S.-EU travel corridors during an April 26 online interview organized by Eurocontrol, in which the agency’s director general Eamonn Brennan also spoke. 

Asked whether long-haul or short-haul would offer more opportunities this summer, Doyle said: “I think we will see opportunities in both. I think the U.S. has a great opportunity to get up and running again. If you look at the progress of vaccinations that the UK and the U.S. have made, they’re almost neck and neck. So I think opening up an air corridor ... between the UK and also between Europe and the U.S. is something which I think can be easily achieved if we have the right will on both sides of the pond.”  

Walsh said simple and secure digital processes for vaccination certificates would be equally critical to reopening travel. 

“We are still awaiting the development of globally recognized standards for digital vaccine certificates. As a first step, it is vital that the EU accelerates adoption of the European Green Certificate. President von der Leyen’s comments should add urgency to this work,” Walsh said. 

In March, the EC put forward a plan for a Digital Green Certificate to provide proof of a passenger’s COVID-19 health status, with the aim of facilitating a travel recovery within the EU.  

The Digital Green Certificate will provide proof that a person has been vaccinated against coronavirus infection, received a negative test result or recovered from COVID-19 and will be available for free in digital or paper format, including a QR code for both to ensure security and authenticity.  

The EC said April 22 that its European member states had agreed on technical specifications for the certificate, which it described as “a crucial step for the establishment of the necessary infrastructure at EU level.” 

In parallel, Member States are encouraged to deploy the needed technical solutions at national level, the EC added. “It is of utmost importance to advance the work on the technical implementation, in parallel to the ongoing legislative process, to ensure a roll-out of Digital Green Certificates across the EU by June 2021,” it said. 

Eurocontrol’s Brennan echoed that during the interview with Doyle. “This is a very important enabler, it means you can start integrating it into airline apps,” he said. 

In response to von der Leyen’s comments, IATA said those who are unable to be vaccinated should not be excluded from travel. “The presentation of negative COVID-19 test results should also facilitate travel,” IATA said, adding that EU governments should accept rapid antigen tests approved by the EC.  

Airlines in Europe have been hit hard in recent months by uneven vaccination rollouts, fears over emerging variants and lockdowns and travel restrictions in many countries.  

Carriers are hoping vaccinations will allow for a recovery in travel demand over the important summer vacation season, but airlines have little visibility. High levels of uncertainty means those who do wish to travel book late.  

While LCCs are hopeful of short-haul leisure demand within Europe—Ryanair is preparing to be able to operate about 75% of its normal capacity this summer—airlines that rely more on long-haul travel are eager to see transatlantic routes open up.  

Earlier this month, Air France-KLM CEO Ben Smith said he hoped passengers would be able to travel more freely between Europe and North America by the summer, either through a vaccine certificate system, more streamlined testing or eased border restrictions.   

Von der Leyen had also said April 24 that she was confident the EU had enough doses for 70% of adults to be vaccinated by July.

Helen Massy-Beresford

Based in Paris, Helen Massy-Beresford covers European and Middle Eastern airlines, the European Commission’s air transport policy and the air cargo industry for Aviation Week & Space Technology and Aviation Daily.