Updated 24 August 2021
Ever since the coronavirus pandemic brought the world to an unforeseen halt, tour operators, travel companies and governments have been looking for ways to revive the tourism sector, without having to compromise on the safety of passengers. Being an indispensable part of the travel industry, airlines too were compelled to figure out how they could fly customers and crew cross-border while strictly maintaining the COVID-19 protocols and regulations in different countries.
Now, with the mass vaccination programs being underway in several countries, airlines are gradually starting to find their footing again. Some of them have introduced ‘vaccinated flights’ to ensure maximum safety of their passengers.
What are vaccinated flights? Which airlines are operating them? How safe are they? Read on to find out.
What do airlines mean by vaccinated flights?
To renew people’s confidence in international air travel, some airlines have vaccinated all their pilots and cabin crew. Their flights henceforth will be managed only by staff inoculated from the coronavirus, thus reducing the risk of onboard transmission.
A few airlines have also taken the bold decision of flying vaccinated passengers only.
Which airlines are operating them now?
Etihad, the national airline of the UAE, was the first one to announce on 10 February that it was the first airline in the world with a 100% vaccinated crew. Etihad’s vaccination initiative has been in solidarity with the country’s Choose to Vaccinate campaign and has cemented its position as an industry leader in its response to the pandemic and in keeping its employees and customers safe.
— Etihad Airways (@etihad) February 10, 2021
Singapore Airlines Group
Singapore Airlines, the flag carrier airline of Singapore stated that 99 percent of its active pilots and cabin crew, as well as all frontline ground staff, are now fully vaccinated. Its sister companies, SilkAir and Scoot have also begun to operate flights with vaccinated pilots and attendants.
On 21 February, Emirates also flew its first flight serviced solely by vaccinated staff. Not only had the pilots and cabin crew taken the jabs, but the airline’s employees at check-in, security, business and first-class lounge, and boarding gate too, had been inoculated against the virus. Over 26,000 of the company’s UAE frontline aviation workforce have received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to date.
Emirates is one of the first airlines to operate a flight with fully vaccinated frontline teams. We’re committed to delivering on our health and safety promises to our employees and customers.#FlySaferWithEmirates #FlyEmiratesFlyBetter @DXB pic.twitter.com/IZFNWWw6L6
— Emirates Airline (@emirates) February 22, 2021
On 23 March, Rwanda’s flag carrier became Africa’s first airline to have reached a 100% vaccination rate. All the staff members working at the Kigali International Airport as well RwandAir‘s crew in the air are now inoculated against the coronavirus with doses of the COVAX, AstraZeneca, and Pfizer vaccines.
Air India Express, the budget wing of India’s flag carrier, operated its first flight with a fully vaccinated crew on 18 June, 2021. The flight, IX 191, flew from Delhi to Dubai.
#FlyWithIX : A big moment!
IX 191-India's 1st International Flight with Fully-Vaccinated Crew Takes Off from Delhi. The pilots & cabin crew of IX 191/196 Delhi-Dubai-Jaipur-Delhi flight have received both doses of their COVID-19 vaccine.
Ensuring all onboard a safe environment! pic.twitter.com/blLlQcWH1c
— Air India Express (@FlyWithIX) June 18, 2021
Another Indian low-cost airline, Vistara too, flew from Delhi to Mumbai and back with a 100% vaccinated cabin crew on 16 June.
AirAsia India was the first airline in the country to announce that 99.5% of its guest-facing operational staff including pilots, cabin crew, security, ground staff, and catering operation, had been inoculated with their first doses.
The airline operated 9 domestic flights with a fully vaccinated crew on 18 June 2021, in the Bengaluru-Kolkata, Kolkata-Bengaluru, Bengaluru-Chennai, Chennai-Guwahati, Guwahati-Bengaluru, Bengaluru-Pune, Pune-Jaipur, Jaipur-Pune and Pune-Bengaluru sectors.
American aviation beast, United Airlines informed its employees on 22 June 2021 that only fully vaccinated crew will be allowed to operate on flights to destinations deemed high-risk by the airline, such as India, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Colombia and Argentina, and potentially to China and Taiwan as well.
The airline also became the first US airline to require COVID-19 vaccinations for all domestic employees The move was subsequently followed by Hawaiian Airlines
Malaysia Airlines announced its achievement of recording a 100 per cent vaccinated status for all its pilots and cabin crew on its active roster. The achievement is in line with the compulsory vaccination policy for all employees except for those with health and medical reasons.
Qantas has currently vaccinated some 89 percent of all its workforce and is planning on having all of its frontline employees fully vaccinated by 15 November 2021 and the remainder of employees by 31 March 2022. There will be exemptions for those who are unable for documented medical reasons to be vaccinated, which is expected to be very rare.
Cathay Pacific stated last week that 99 percent of pilots had been vaccinated, while around 91 percent of its cabin crew and flight attendant had booked or received vaccinations. Cathay also announced that all employees must be fully vaccinated by 31 August.
Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific, Air Asia Philippines
Philippine airlines said that 90 percent of its flight crew have been vaccinated, while budget carrier Cebu Pacific said 92 percent of its workforce, including 97 percent of pilots have received the jabs. Moreover, AirAsia Philippines inoculation rate stands at 92 percent of its workers have received doses, including 97 percent of cabin crew.
Airlines operating vaccinated passengers-only flights
Qantas made headlines back in November 2020, when it announced that it will start asking its customers for proof of vaccination in the coming months. Recently, Qantas announced that when international borders are open once again, the airline will be requiring its passengers to be vaccinated against Covid-19 as a condition for travel.
The government of Canada has stated that it will require most commercial passengers travelling by air, rail or large ship to be fully vaccinated by fall. Air Canada was quick to announce its support of the government mandate by stating that it was in line with science-based procedures for safe travel.
Delta Airlines‘ CEO, Ed Bastian, has also said vaccinations will sooner or later become a “requirement” for international travel.
On 7 April 2021, Qatar Airways made history by successfully completing the world’s first flight where passengers and crew were both fully vaccinated. The in-flight entertainment was controlled by passengers using their smartphones as part of the airline’s Zero Touch technology.
Just a few days later, Emirates, too, celebrated its first flight with only fully-vaccinated crew, pilots and passengers on board. The four-hour special flight took off from the Dubai Internation Airport (DXB) and circled back after flying over other regions of the UAE.
As the number of vaccinated individuals continues to grow around the world, more airlines are expected to implement such vaccination-related restrictions.
Will vaccinated flights normalize international travel again?
While flying in a vaccinated flight may sound like a relief to passengers, it’s probably not quite the bulletproof solution to normalizing international travel.
For one, it is not yet clear if vaccinated individuals can transmit the virus to others, even if they themselves are protected against getting sick. Until research sheds light on this, it is advisable to wear masks, use sanitizer and maintain social distancing rules on flights. Infectious-disease specialists say even vaccinated people should limit travel to essential trips.
Moreover, although the flight crew has been vaccinated, other passengers may not have been, so you still run the risk of contracting the virus from them.
That said, vaccinations will be occupying a central place in the global travel scenario, with countries mandating vaccination certificates or vaccine passports for international arrivals.
To what extent vaccinated flights will uplift air travel is uncertain as of now. One thing, however, remains definite that travellers and airlines will have to adapt to the changes in the situation to be able to return a semblance of normalcy again.