Having vaccinated people on airplanes makes sense

Having vaccinated people on airplanes makes sense
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Air travel is at its highest level in over one year, with average daily screenings at airport security checkpoints surpassing 1 million passengers per day in March, and climbing. 

In the very near future, 1.5 million passengers will be screened in a single day. This can be attributed to the beginning of spring travel as the weather across the nation improves, college students travel down south for spring break and a general uptick in the economy and business activity. There is a pent up demand for travel in general, with airlines a direct beneficiary of such activities.

To further support air travel, over 2 million COVID-19 vaccines are being administered daily, with over 10 percent of the population now fully immunized. At this rate, an additional 10 percent of the U.S. population will become fully immunized each month. The prospect of herd immunity by the end of the summer is well within reach, with all the benefits that it brings.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for those fully immunized permit greater interaction, particularly amongst those who have all been vaccinated. This makes good sense and provides a safe pathway for social interactions as more people are immunized. 

Unfortunately, the CDC continues to be wary of air travel even amongst those vaccinated. This makes no sense.

Airlines have operated throughout the pandemic, implementing numerous safety measures to reduce the risk of virus transmission on flights. High-Efficiency Particle Filters (HEPA) for air circulation on airplanes, deep cleaning of airplanes between flights and mandatory face coverings have served passengers and flight crew well, with no documented significant outbreaks seeded from those traveling by air.  

Air travel is the barometer that Americans use to measure social and economic wellbeing. It facilitates social interactions by bringing people together across the nation and widespread commerce and business activity. As air travel picks up, so does the general mood of our nation. 

Even as more people become fully immunized, airline safety protocols like mask mandates will and should be continued through 2021 and likely well into 2022.


One fact not fully appreciated by many is that none of the vaccines are 100 percent effective, which means that some people will continue to be vulnerable even once vaccinated. For example, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are believed to be 95 percent effective, a remarkably high level of protection. This still leaves room for a small fraction of immunized people to get infected and further spread the virus.  

Moreover, herd immunity does not guarantee that the virus cannot still infect people. What it means is that a sufficient number of people are immune such that widespread epidemic spread of the virus is suppressed. Therefore, herd immunity provides population protection even if scattered individuals become infected. This is why the development of effective treatments must be a top priority of the Biden administration public health plan to combat COVID-19.

The biggest threat to air travel are those people who refuse a vaccine. Expanding the footprint of immunized people is the safest way to jump start air travel, and for that matter, the entire economy. Getting the percentage of the adult population vaccinated up to 90 percent is a formula for public health success and economic wellbeing.     

All protocols in place on airplanes today are necessary, whether or not passengers are vaccinated. With one year of air travel experience behind us, discouraging air travel makes little sense. Indeed, filling seats with vaccinated passengers can only make air travel safer for all, with fewer people on airplanes who may spread the virus and are at risk of infection.

Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a founder Professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He applies his expertise in risk-based assessment to evaluate and inform public policy.