“Vaccination Passports” & Covid-19 Tracking Apps Could Trigger More Travel, But That Still Might Not Be Enough

Nearly three-quarters of Americans over the age of 18 – or around 188 million people – say they would use some type of Covid-19 “Vaccine Passport” or a smart phone app connected to a database as a way of confirming their vaccination status and allowing them to travel by air once again, either internationally or domestically.

Still, that leaves around 62 million adult Americans who say they’re unwilling to participate in a vaccine passport or an app-based Covid-19 vaccination database program.

And that’s a large enough number to bring into question whether such proposed solutions to the current, near-catastrophic, pandemic-driven weakness in travel demand would be effective in enticing a sufficient number people to resume traveling in order for airlines, hotels and related travel and tourism businesses even to reach the break-even point again.

The new data come from a small survey conducted by theVacationer.com, a year-old travel news and advice website based in New Jersey. The survey, conducted on Jan. 9 via the cloud-based survey and research company Survey Monkey, received answers from 520 Americans who were at least 18 years old. Of that total slightly more than half were women. More than 37% were between the ages of 45 and 60; 25% were between the ages of 30 and 44, nearly 23% were between 18 and 29; and almost 15% were over the age of 60.

Partners Eric Jones and Phil Dengler, who operate theVacationer.com, said that in light of the launch of the national vaccine distribution program “It seems for the first time that there might be a little light at the end of the tunnel.” And their goal with the survey, they said, was to “See how the vaccine may change people’s sentiment regarding travel. We also sought to understand how people viewed the vaccine as well as questioning their privacy concerns for tracking vaccine recipients.”

Unfortunately – not so much for theVacationner.com, but for the travel industry and Americans eager to resume traveling after 11 months of being largely stuck at home – the survey results do not provide a clear indication that a vaccination passport or app-based vaccination database will trigger a complete recovery of travel demand.

Certainly, such programs – combined with the vaccinations themselves – will give many more Americans increased confidence to begin traveling again. But a quarter of U.S. adults, according to the survey, still won’t be lured back into the air – or into hotel rooms and other traveler and tourist accommodations – by the delivery of vaccines and programs identifying non-vaccinated travelers (and perhaps preventing them from traveling).

The survey does not address the question of whether those who say they will be more at ease with the idea of flying with vaccines and such programs in place actually will travel again. That’s always a challenge when it comes to understanding surveys of what consumers say they will do under certain future conditions. Neither does the survey question whether those who responded positively expect to travel as frequently, for the same reasons, or in the same ways that they traveled prior to Covid-19 arrival.

In fact, the survey did not inquire how frequently respondents traveled before the pandemic, or about their reasons or and manner of travel. Potentially, answers to such un-asked questions could have a significant impact on a travel demand recovery. If respondents to the survey were mostly leisure travelers who took one or two trips a year, or not always by air, their level of comfort with the idea of returning to travel again would be less impactful than the return of high mileage business travelers who return fully, or only partially to their former heavy travel patterns prior to the virus’ spread.

TheVactioners.com team did note a curious demographic difference in the responses to their survey’s first and primary question. Men, it turns out, were more likely than women to agree to using a vaccine passport or similar system by a margin of 8 percentage points – 77.7% to 69.9%.

Jones and Dengler stressed that while 26.35% of survey respondents said they still would not be comfortable traveling even after vaccinations become widespread and programs like a vaccine passport or app-based tracking system are in place, the fact that 73.65% said they would be more comfortable traveling under such conditions is “in an era of privacy concerns… an astoundingly high percentage.”

Another question in the survey produced similarly complex and hard-to-analyze results.

When asked “With he Covid-19 pandemic stills spreading, when will you feel comfortable travel again?”  only 23.85% said they’d be ready to go as soon as they got vaccinated themselves. Just 31.54% said they’d be ready to go once “enough” of the public gets vaccinated, though what percentage constitutes “enough” was left undefined. That flies in the face of what was, until very recently, the common expectation among many leaders in the airline, hotel and related travel industries that customers would resume their old travel patterns once vaccinations became widely distributed and used.

Another head scratcher stemming from that question: almost 28.5% of adults, according to the survey, are already comfortable enough to travel right now.

That’s seemingly hard to square with the still very low travel demand numbers currently in the U.S. market. U.S. airlines, for example, are currently operating a little less than half as many flights as they operated 12 months ago, before the virus arrived in the U.S. marketplace. But even with such capacity reductions U.S. carriers struggling to fill even half of their reduced number of seats.

For example, in the fourth quarter, Delta Airlines offered 44% less capacity – measured in available seat miles – as it did in the fourth quarter of 2019. But its ridership fell by 73% in passenger miles flown. As a result, its load factor, or percentage of filled seats, tumbled to just 42% of a much smaller base of capacity. In the fourth quarter of 2019, with capacity 44% higher than it was in the fourth quarter of 2020, Delta’s load factor was an astonishingly high 86% – meaning virtually flights except those very late at night, early in the morning or very slow points in the week, were flown with every seat full.

In effect, ridership on Delta in the fourth quarter fell almost twice as much as did its capacity. With some variance for different carriers’ various strategic and tactical approaches to aligning capacity reductions with both demand reductions and competitive requirements, that is roughly in line with what happened to the entire industry in terms of demand erosion vs. capacity shrinkage.

However, the seeming mismatch between the numbers of Americans who say they’re ready to travel now vs. the current very low travel demand numbers does seem to highlight the interrelatedness of the various aspects of travel. In some cases, airlines no longer can fly to destinations that those who are prepared to travel now wish to go. That’s especially true with international travel because many nations, including nearly all those atop the lists of most popular foreign destinations for U.S. travelers and biggest sources of foreign visitors to the U.S. have closed or tightly restricted their borders.

Additionally, in order for those who are ready to travel now to actually do so they must have a reason to go and things to do once they reach their destinations. Yet, many workplaces effectively are closed as staff work from home, hotels are offering only reduced numbers of rooms because of sever staff reductions, and tourist attractions are closed or are tightly limiting. So, many travelers who otherwise would be willing to travel currently have no place worth visiting.

A third question asked in theVacationers.com survey was: “Do you trust the Covid-19 vaccine enough to travel to high risk Covid-19 areas.” Not surprisingly, more than half of respondents – 56.15% – answered “no.” Interestingly, however, 58.14% of respondents from states touching the Pacific ocean – Alaska, Hawaii, California, Oregon and Washington, answered “yes” to that question. Less than half of those from all other regions answered “yes,” with those from the “East South Central” region – Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi – were most negative about traveling to high risk regions even if they were vaccinated. Just 26.1% of respondents from that region said they would do so.

The survey also asked: “Will you take the Covid-19 vaccine if it is required to do any of the following:

  • Fly on a plane – 63.08% said yes
  • Stay in a hotel – 55.96% said yes
  • Visit a specific state – 56.73% said yes
  • Enter a foreign country – 51.54% said yes

Another 21.35% of the survey respondents answered “I will not take the Covid-19 vaccine under any circumstances.” That’s roughly in line with some of the most recent study and survey results of the U.S. population showing between 20% and 30% of Americans say they will not get the vaccine. Earlier in the fall the numbers of people telling surveyors they would not take the vaccine rose to as high as 40%.

TheVacationers.com’s survey more detailed data showed that those over the age of 60 – generally the segment of the population most vulnerable to Covid-19 – were the most willing to take the vaccine. Only 14.47% of such respondents said they would refuse the vaccine under all such circumstances. But 76.32% said they’d take it to be able to fly on a plane; 63.16% said they’d take it to stay in a hotel, 69.74% said they’d take to visit a specific state; and 56.58% said they would take it to enter a foreign country.