IATA Urges Governments To Scrap Inconsistent Travel Rules

COVID-19 testing at Malpensa Airport
Credit: Piero Cruciatti / AFP / Getty Images

BOSTON—IATA called on governments from around the world to remove travel restrictions for vaccinated passengers, arguing that “wildly inconsistent” entry requirements have stalled the global air transport industry’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“People who are fully vaccinated should be allowed to travel without restrictions and without testing,” IATA CEO Willie Walsh told reporters at the group’s 2021 annual general meeting in Boston. “Travel restrictions are a complex and confusing web of rules with very little consistency among them, and there is little evidence to support ongoing border restrictions and the economic havoc they create.”

Walsh said it is vital that governments also offer a “sensible testing regime” for passengers who lack access to vaccination or cannot get vaccinated for health or religious reasons. IATA is promoting rapid antigen testing as its gold-standard for fast and effective pre-travel COVID-19 screening. Those tests should be funded by governments so they do not become barriers to travel, Walsh added.

“It would be grossly unfair for people who can’t access a vaccine to be prevented from flying,” Walsh said. “That’s why we’re promoting the use of rapid antigen testing, which clearly has improved in terms of its reliability over recent months versus where they were in the initial stages.”

Robin Hayes, JetBlue Airways CEO and chair of IATA’s Board of Governors, told reporters that IATA remains strongly opposed to potentially mandating vaccination for domestic air travel, citing “operational complexity” of verifying vaccinations and exemptions for millions of travelers each day in large domestic markets like the U.S.

Hayes also cited the low risk of importing the novel coronavirus from international air travel as a reason not to pursue a domestic mandate. Testing results for arriving UK passengers found that fewer than 250 inbound arrivals tested positive each day for the coronavirus between February and August, compared to a case count of 35,000 within the country during that time. Similarly, Hayes said that requiring negative COVID-19 tests for domestic travel could lead to bottlenecks and delays in large domestic markets. 

“We have up to 3 million passengers flying each day in the U.S., so any vaccine or testing requirement would put immense pressure on the system in terms of airport wait times, or people needed to fill that function,” Hayes said. “We are very concerned that the U.S. system just could not handle it at this time.”

Walsh said that IATA is of the opinion that mask mandates for air travel should be lifted “as soon as it’s scientifically demonstrated that wearing masks no longer adds any value to reducing the risk” of transmitting the coronavirus.

“We shouldn’t have measures in place for one day longer than needed,” Walsh said. “Masks were very important to get people flying early on in the pandemic, but at some point we do believe they will no longer be necessary.”

Notably, in an Oct. 3 announcement, Air New Zealand (ANZ) said that as of Feb. 1, 2022, the airline will mandate that everyone on board its international network flights—passengers and crew—must be vaccinated against COVID-19.

The airline said its vaccination requirement will apply to all passengers aged 18 and older arriving to or departing New Zealand on an ANZ aircraft. Unvaccinated passengers will be required to present proof that vaccination was not a viable option for them for medical reasons, ANZ said.

“Being vaccinated against COVID-19 is the new reality of international travel—many of the destinations Kiwis want to visit are already closed to unvaccinated visitors,” ANZ CEO Greg Foran said. “The quicker we get vaccinated, the sooner we can fly Kiwis to places like New York, Vancouver and Narita.”

Ben Goldstein

Based in Washington, Ben covers Congress, regulatory agencies, the Departments of Justice and Transportation and lobby groups.