Why every major US airline will ignore the CDC’s new suggestion to block middle seats

CDC
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • Airlines will likely not be blocking middle seats despite a new CDC recommendation.
  • Mask-wearing policies and high-efficiency particulate air filters have greatly reduced onboard outbreaks.
  • Airlines have also begun selling summer flights based on flights being sold to capacity.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Airlines are not convinced by the newly-released report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that says blocking middle seats will better reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus, more so than what they’re doing now.

All major US airlines, confident in measures like mask-wearing and the use of high-efficiency particular air filters, or HEPA filters, are moving away from the practice with no signs of reverting back to it while others never adopted it and are not likely to. Delta Air Lines is the last hold out with its policy slated to end on May 1.

But the reasoning goes well beyond the desire of airlines to turn a profit by filling planes.

“Multiple scientific studies confirm that the layers of protection significantly reduce risk, and research continues to demonstrate that the risk of transmission onboard aircraft is very low,” Airlines for America, the trade organization representing many of the country’s major airlines including Delta, American Airlines, and United Airlines, said in a statement to Insider.

Airlines are already walking a fine line to prevent an onboard outbreak while trying to get flyers to come back. If an outbreak were to occur, the industry could go right back to where it was in March 2020 with mass cancellations and billions of dollars being lost.

Masks have been required onboard commercial airline flights for almost a year now and any major outbreak would have been well noted and investigated. The 2017 study also doesn’t take into account the measures being taken by airlines, one industry expert says.

“This is months-old data that overlooks a lot of changes in the real world policies and practices that the air transport industry has implemented since the study was first conducted,” Henry Harteveldt, industry analyst and co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group, said of the just-released CDC report. Researchers ran the tests in a laboratory setting using mannequins that were not wearing face masks.

More recent studies from the US Department of Defense and Harvard School of Public Health better-simulated pandemic conditions by using actual airplanes – the DOD partnered with United Airlines and used commercial aircraft, for example – and by masking up the mannequins.

Harteveldt noted that each stud likely isn’t perfect, as the Harvard study was industry-funded. And while the DOD study is more dependable, it only used wide-body aircraft for its testing, a factor that Harteveldt says isn’t a major limiting issue considering the filtration systems are comparable on narrow-body aircraft.

Reverting back to the days of blocking middle seats would also wreak havoc on airlines that have begun selling tickets on planes to capacity for the summer.

“If you were to tell a passenger now, ‘oh, we have to rebook your vacation because we’re blocking middle seats,’ I think you’d have a lot of upset travelers,” Harteveldt said, noting airlines would like demand compensation from the government if it became law.

Travelers have indicated time and time again that they’re willing to fly on any airline if the price is right, regardless of the seat block. American Airlines and United Airlines had no trouble filling some flights in the first summer of the pandemic when flights were sold to capacity, as Insider found on multiple flights in June 2020.

“The consumers went where they could get the flights and fares that they could afford,” Harteveldt said. “And this was before vaccines were available and before wearing a mask was a federal mandate.”

Delta Air Lines is set to end its middle-seat block on May 1, at which point none of the 11 major US airlines will offer the policy. Airlines are also not alone as Amtrak and Megabus have also announced definitive ends to their seat blocking policies, as well.

Read More: Airline workers have lower rates of COVID-19 than the general population – and airline CEOs say it’s proof that flying is safe

Crowded flights are back and here to stay.

Read the original article on Business Insider

Experts say it’s unlikely COVID-19 passports will come about: ‘The vaccine passport could wind up being irrelevant’

passport
Robert F. Balazik/Shutterstock

  • Experts say it’s unlikely an international COVID-19 passport travel system will come about.
  • They have flagged privacy, inequality, politics, and long-term need as the main problems.
  • Still, the travel industry is banking on a system to allow international travel to resume.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

COVID-19 passports have been hailed as the key to opening up the global economy, but some privacy and health experts doubt they’ll ever be widely accepted.

Plans to require COVID-19 passports for international travel or even entry to large venues or work offices may fumble, as critics say there’s a wide range of issues – from privacy and inequity, to continuity and longevity – standing in the way. But airlines, which took a trillion-dollar hit because of the pandemic, are banking on some kind of digital credential to get people flying internationally again.

The most likely outcome, said Bryan Del Monte, president of the Aviation Agency and a former director at the US Department of Defense, is that health passports will likely be needed only if you plan to travel internationally, but they won’t be “as big a deal as everyone thinks.”

But by the time a system is agreed upon and created, this could be a “moot” point, he told Insider.

“The vaccine passport could wind up being irrelevant because by the time everyone gets inoculated, do you really need one?” he said, noting that travelers don’t provide proof of vaccination against measles or rubella upon entering a foreign country.

Even so, these health passports have begun rolling out as proposals or beta tests, and some have even gone live in various markets across the globe.

The European Union proposed the “Digital Green Certificate,” a vaccine passport which would allow travel to 27 member countries, if approved. China, Israel, the UAE, and the Philippines are among other countries that have launched versions of their own, as well.

In the US, the White House is reportedly working on a vaccination passport that could require proof of immunization prior to traveling or entering crowded venues. And New York was the first state to launch one that would show a person’s proof of vaccination before entering large gatherings, like a basketball game or a wedding.

Nobody is talking about the ‘politics that go into this’

The World Health Organization, and even airlines, have advocated against requiring vaccination for travel. The main reasons are data on how effective vaccines are at preventing transmission plus the limited global supply, according to the WHO.

“If access to vaccine is (unequal), then inequity and unfairness can be further branded into the system,” Mike Ryan, the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme executive director, said on March 8.

In February, the WHO said wealthy countries with just 16% of the world’s population bought up 60% of the available COVID-19 vaccine supply. It flagged the inequality in the global immunization effort, but also said the imbalance could cause the virus to continue spreading and mutating to more dangerous variants.

In the US alone, the vaccine rollout has been disproportionate among minorities and poorer populations, who have received fewer doses of the COVID-19 vaccine despite often being at greater risk for contracting the disease.

Read more: COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker: AstraZeneca’s shot proves safe and effective, and is headed to the FDA

Some have also said international COVID-19 passports becoming standardized and globally adopted could be too big a task to accomplish.

“The technology to make this happen is very difficult, but the even more difficult part that no one’s talking about is the politics that go into this,” said Bryce Conway, consumer advocate and founder at 10xTravel, a company that helps more than 70,000 travelers navigate loyalty programs and credit card points.

In the US, for example, some Republican lawmakers have dubbed the concept of vaccine passports as dystopian.

“We can’t even agree how to row the boat in this country,” Del Monte said. “This is not going to roll out quickly.”

Internationally, if countries approve certain vaccines and not others, some immunized travelers may still be barred from entering. China, for example, has said travelers receiving its vaccine will have an easier time entering the country, and many countries have said Russia’s shot isn’t effective enough to qualify.

Conway said the most likely scenario, if a COVID-19 passport is adopted, is that various groups of countries will agree on how to accept travelers from one another.

“I don’t think you’re going to have a multinational, huge system where everyone’s on it and that’s the one standard that’s used,” he said

But Laura Hoffner, chief of staff at risk consulting firm Concentric, said the secret to creating a COVID-19 passport is getting the US to lay out protocols. Because once that happens, “the world will most likely follow suit,” she said.

On March 12, Jeff Zients, the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, said the private sector and others have already begun working on how to prove vaccination.

“Our role is to help ensure that any solutions in this area should be simple, free, open source, accessible to people both digitally and on paper, and designed from the start to protect people’s privacy,” he said.

Still, the airline industry has asked the White House for specific guidelines on a health passport, so people can get back to flying, as international travel has plummeted 85% because of the pandemic, according to Perry Flint, head of the International Air Transport Association’s US corporate communications.

“We’re ready to get going again,” Flint said.

In a statement to Business Insider, the White House said it is “leading an interagency effort regarding vaccine verification,” but didn’t give any details on a timeline or how a passport would work.

‘We can do all of this with little pieces of paper’

Airline trade groups such as IATA and Airlines for America are advocating for a digital passport that either verifies someone’s immunization to COVID-19 or a negative test result, as they say outright mandating the vaccine could discriminate against those who can’t or refuse to get the vaccine.

While waiting for guidance from the government, IATA has begun testing its own digital passport, called the Travel Pass. Doctors can send test results or proof of vaccination to a person, who can link that information to the Travel Pass app prior to flying. Then travelers show the app to an agent, along with their actual passport and ticket.

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The IATA Travel Pass is currently being tested by multiple international airlines. Courtesy of IATA.

These digital passports come with another hurdle, though: maintaining privacy.

Immunity passport apps are fraught with privacy flaws and pose big ethical problems, according to a report from security research company Top10VPN, which analyzed 65 digital health certificate apps operating around the world and found 82% had inadequate privacy policies.

Jon Callas at the Electronic Frontier Foundation said the high-tech solution comes with too high a price tag and too high a risk for invasion of privacy. “We can do all of this with little pieces of paper,” he said.

Checking thousands of vaccination papers or test results would be a bottleneck to international travel, Flint said, saying the world shouldn’t use a “20th Century standard” when many things, such as tickets, have already gone digital.

For years, some countries have already taken on the task of checking proof-of-vaccination papers against yellow fever. This has become known as the “yellow paper,” and could be as easily applied to COVID-19, said Callas.

But the yellow card is “not safe; it’s not easy,” Caryn Seidman-Becker, chief executive officer of CLEAR, said at the Economic Club of New York on March 30. CLEAR, a biometric identity platform used at airports, has created its own “digital health credential,” called Health Pass that Seidman-Becker said will make travel “frictionless.”

But with regard to digital credentials, Callas said, “I don’t see why a paper form isn’t good enough. Every immigration form that I do, I sign it at the bottom, and say under penalty of perjury I assert this is true, and I don’t see why, ‘I got my COVID-19 vaccine’ isn’t just another box to tick.”

“They’re trying to sell digital passports,” he said “The people who are advocating this are the ones who want the rest of us to pay for that.”

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