It figures, one supposes, that just when the U.S. airline industry is maybe, sort’a, kind’a, if-you’re-looking-through-rose-colored-lenses starting to see the first signs of a possibly true recovery in travel demand that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control would issue a new guideline urging that fully vaccinated Americans still not travel.
On Monday Raymond James RJF airline analyst Savanthi Syth issued a surprisingly upbeat report noting that beginning about two weeks ago U.S. carriers started seeing a change in flight booking trends that portend a better second quarter. True, that’s a heavily hedged and caveated way of saying “hey, things might be getting a little better out there, maybe.” But for a group that posted a record $35 billion loss in the U.S. last year, blew the lid off all previous records for indebtedness, cut its collective employee ranks by more than 100,000 (if you count all those who would have been laid off already if the federal government weren’t directly covering their salaries for the moment), and continues to lose $150 million in cash a day, that’s actually a pretty positive piece of news.
But 24 hours later CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky went on TV and poured buckets of cold water on the notion that it might be okay for at least some Americans to begin flying again.
In a painfully stilted announcement and briefing that is destined to become a textbook example of why leaders should never read long, stiffly- or formally worded announcements and explanations to a live audience or on TV, Walensky offered new guidance from her revered agency on what fully vaccinated American will be able to do and where they will go. Among other things, such folk, she said, can hang out with friends and family who also are fully vaccinated or who otherwise are not very vulnerable to Covid-19.
But instead of encouraging them also to resume traveling – if not for their own mental health and enjoyment, then for the good of the economy – Walensky urged fully vaccinated Americans to not travel until the disease is fully under control. Obviously, we’ve still got quite some time before that happens.
That piece of head-scratching “guidance” from Walensky brings up two obvious questions.
First, what does it mean, then, to be “vaccinated?” If, as a result of being vaccinated, we are very unlikely either to get or to spread Covid-19 what’s keeping us from traveling? And second, if vaccination isn’t enough to allow us to travel (assuming we continue to wear masks, wash our hands frequently, maintain social distancing and take other steps to protect ourselves and others), why is it then okay for us to begin doing again all those other things the CDC now says full vaccinated people can resume doing? The agency can’t have it both ways. The vaccine is either effective or its not. It cannot be effective in some situations but not effective in others.
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Perhaps more significantly, Walensky’s uninspiring and confusing performance – and the collective guidance that the literal geniuses from her agency came up with – now ranks as the best example of why technocrats of any type should never be allowed to set the rules or, as in this case, even “guidelines” for our society without significant input from experts in other disciplines that are likely to disagree with them or provide important added analysis and different perspectives.
Researchers, business and political leaders, lawyers, engineers, philosophers, and thinkers on subjects like mental health, education, economics, politics, human behavior, foreign policy, business, etc. all need to be consulted as well – along with experts in that most difficult-to-master of all disciplines, common sense – before such rules or guidelines are issued. That’s because it’s axiomatic that technocrats will always make decisions that have unintended results that at the very least offset, and sometimes outweigh the good intended by the imposition of the technocrats’ rules or guidelines.
Certainly, there’s no data yet showing that Monday’s new guidelines from the CDC will kill whatever trend there might be toward a modest recovery in travel demand. And there may never be any such evidence. In fact, here’s hoping there’ll never be any such evidence even that would make this argument less convincing.
But clearly the whole of the travel industry – not just the airlines but especially the hotel industry plus attractions, restaurants, convention and exhibition facilities, travel advisors and planners, ground transportation companies and more – is hanging on by a thread these days. It desperately need customers and revenue. And it mostly must come from leisure travelers because business travel is and will remain for some many more months frozen by concerns about corporate liability should traveling workers get sick, by tight restrictions on trans-border travel between most nations, and by any lingering financial impacts on businesses of their partial or total shutdowns over the past year.
Thus, the CDC’s guidance against fully vaccinated Americans – those who are at least two weeks past their second-round doses of vaccine (or similarly past the new one-shot Johnson & Johnson JNJ vaccine) – traveling is a glaring example of technocratic tunnel vision. The CDC certainly does important, even heroic work in many respects. But when it comes to offering rules or guidance that will impact the way millions of Americans live and whether thousands upon thousands of businesses will survive or fail, it sees its mission as ONLY stopping the spread of Covid-19. It does not consider the many other equally bad or worse consequences that continuing today’s unprecedented level travel demand weakness will produce: lost jobs, bankruptcies, stressed out people, divorces, suicides, educational declines, and increased mental and physical health issues.
Of course, this also leads to the question: Why is the travel industry campaigning for the CDC to play a key role in developing a so-called “vaccine passport” system that would be accepted around the world?
On Tuesday, a group of more than two dozen U.S. and foreign airlines, their unions and other aviation interests, lobby groups representing other travel industry sectors, and even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to the Biden Administration. In it they pleaded with the Biden Administration to work to make sure that the CDC is given the lead role in the already-underway global effort to develop “vaccination passports” that track individuals’ health status vis-à-vis Covid-19. Such passports would be used to determine whether individuals are allowed to travel across borders, or to enter certain facilities.
Plenty of questions are arising out of the efforts to develop such systems. What data should and should not be collected? Who will verify it? How will individuals’ privacy be protected? Can vaccine passports be used as a tool of discrimination? And those are just a few of the obvious questions. Plenty of others exist, some of which may not be important to Americans but are of huge significance in other cultures or nations, or vice versa
As the world’s top disease tracking, prevention and treatment organization, the CDC would appear to be the ideal organization to lead the global effort to collect vaccination data and to help guide how it is accessed and determine for what purposes that data may be used. Yet, the CDC is not currently charged with playing that role, nor is it funded to do that. That’s why the big group of travel organizations is begging the Biden Administration to authorize – and fund- the involvement of the CDC.
Several different vaccine passport systems are underdevelopment already. Singapore airlines this week said it will become the first airline to begin testing such system being developed by the International Air Transport Association. But there are rival systems being developed in nations that, in some cases, may not want to share data with certain other nations. There also remain lots of technical, policy, financial and legal questions about the IATA-backed system. Still, many around the industry suggest that the IATA system is the best candidate upon which an effective and globally available vaccine passport system could be built and operated.
Meanwhile, the legal questions, in particular, appear to be significant and almost certain to require the involvement of governments around the world.
Airlines themselves are very reluctant to build such a system. First, they’re broke and can’t afford to build such a system right now. More importantly, they fear that if they coordinate their efforts and develop their own single system – or several such competing systems – without government involvement they could become targets of antitrust claims or allegations that they’re using the vaccine passports and the databases behind such systems as competitive weapons, or to discriminate against individuals based on country of origin, health conditions, or other criteria. That’s why and other travel businesses are eager to enlist the technical and legal support of – and funding from – government.