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Global airlines said Monday they don't want to take the responsibility mandating Covid-19 vaccines for travelers. Instead, they're more than happy to stand behind national governments as they make jabs a condition for international arrivals.

Global airline CEOs have no plans to mandate Covid-19 vaccines for travelers anytime soon. Instead, the industry will follow country-specific guidelines and require vaccines based on national rules in what many believe will become a de facto mandate for international flyers.

That’s the word at the trade group International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) Annual General Meeting in Boston on Monday. The event is an annual who’s-who of airline leaders that brings together typically fierce competitors to a United Nations-like convening for the industry.

“I’m totally supportive of it,” United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said of an international traveler mandate in an interview at the event. But asked whether the Chicago-based carrier will implement such a requirement, he said the airline “will just follow the government rules.”

United was the first — and one of the few — U.S. carriers to mandate Covid-19 jabs for staff in August. The airline has achieved a more than 99.5 percent vaccination rate through that policy with the added stick of unpaid leave or worse to staff who do not get their shots. Kirby has described the staff mandate as the “right thing” for the company to do.

But, like with staff mandates in the U.S., Kirby is in the minority among global airline CEOs supporting a traveler mandate — even if he has no plans on implementing on at United. Most leaders prefer to leave such mandates to national governments, which they are then more than happy to follow.

“We follow the rules of the countries where we fly to,” KLM CEO Pieter Elbers said at the event. “It’s people’s own choice if they do, but eventually it will drive in a certain direction.”

KLM has not mandated vaccines for staff. Instead, they have let people make their own decision but — as Elbers indicated — will restrict where they can fly to based on the destination country as well as possible diversion countries in between. Elbers added that Dutch law does not allow KLM to mandate vaccines.

Germany and South Korea have similar laws effectively barring corporate vaccine mandates. These have hamstrung the likes of Korean Air and Lufthansa from implementing staff or traveler requirements. Though the CEOs of both carriers expressed doubt that they needed a mandate and said they would follow any national rules for travelers.

“Most Korean citizens are desperate to get vaccinated. We will get full vaccination soon,” Korean Air Chairman and CEO Walter Cho said at the event, suggesting that — even if it could — the airline may not need a mandate.

Similarly, Lufthansa Group CEO Carsten Spohr said that by their latest estimate 90 percent of the airline’s workforce have gotten their jabs without a mandate.

“Slowly we’ll get there — that flying will only be available to vaccinated or recovered passengers,” he said.

Air New Zealand and Qantas are the only two major carriers to mandate Covid-19 vaccines for international travelers. The former will require it from February 1, while the latter has said it will do so when long-haul services resume, which Qantas forecasts will occur in November. Both airlines are based in country’s that have followed no-Covid policies and the mandates are understood to go hand-in-hand with expected entry rules as Australia and New Zealand reopen.

A patchwork of vaccination requirements for entry is already emerging around the world. The U.S. will require all arriving foreigners to be vaccinated from early November. However, unvaccinated Americans can still enter the country — thus falling short of an all-traveler mandate — but must present a negative Covid-19 test within 24 hours of departure. Canada has said it will require all flyers be vaccinated, and other countries are expected to follow suit. In many places, vaccinated travelers can already bypass testing requirements in many places.

But IATA Director General Willie Walsh opposes vaccine mandates for travelers — whether by an airline or national government — citing access issues. He continues to push for a multi-layered approach to containing Covid-19 including unrestricted travel for those with their jabs or testing requirements for those without.

“We will not support mandating vaccines for passengers,” said Walsh. “It would be grossly unfair if people don’t have access to vaccines.”

RwandAir CEO Yvonne Manzi Makolo expressed similar concerns about mandates and vaccine access. The airline flies primarily within Africa — with big ambitions to expand across the continent — where there is little access to Covid-19 jabs. Multiple measures put the vaccination rate in Africa at less than 5 percent of the population and the rate varies widely from country-to-country. For comparison, the rate in Europe is well above 60 percent and the U.S. is nearly 56 percent.

“Access to vaccine is a major issue for African countries,” said Makolo. “The inequity that’s there right now does not allow countries to impose restrictions.”

Additional reporting by Madhu Unnikrishnan.

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Tags: air new zealand, covid-19, iata, klm, korean air, Lufthansa Group, qantas, united airlines

Photo credit: Airlines want national governments to lay out vaccine rules for international travelers. Dannyman / Wikimedia

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