State Dept. Travel Advisories. Airlines and digital health passports. FAA seeks fines for unruly passengers

By David Tykol
This item appears on page 4 of the May 2021 issue.
Street scene in Oranjestad, Aruba

Dear Globetrotter:

Welcome to the 542nd issue of your monthly worldwide travel magazine. Focused on travel outside of the US, the articles and letters inside are mostly written by our subscribers, who share their experiences, travel tips and reflections. (Don’t overlook the ads. though; they’re keeping travel going.) The other component to our content is news, such as the following.

With the return of international travel on the horizon and some people already visiting opened countries, there is one tool that may help you decide whether or not a country can be visited safely or if there are serious concerns with COVID-19.

The US Department of State’s Travel Advisory system ranks the safety of visiting countries and territories on a scale of 1 to 4, with 1 being “Exercise normal precautions” and 4, “Do not travel.” US citizens can still legally travel to countries ranked 4; it is simply the State Department’s most serious level of warning.

Typically, the State Department assigns countries a rank of 4 due to ongoing problems like warfare, terrorism and serious instability. In 2020, a new reason for that ranking appeared: COVID-19.

At press time, there were 30 countries with a rating of 4, a few exclusively due to COVID-19. For example, on Aug. 6, 2020, Argentina’s Travel Advisory level was raised from 1 to 4, with the accompanying statement “Do not travel to Argentina due to COVID-19.” The State Department had no other travel warnings for Argentina.

Other countries, such as Russia, were also ranked level 4, with the message “Do not travel to… due to COVID-19,” but other warnings were included as well. In the Russia example, the State Department also warned, “Exercise increased caution due to terrorism, harassment, and the arbitrary enforcement of local laws.” So, even without the COVID-19 advisory, Russia would still have been ranked level 2 (“Exercise increased caution”).

There were many other places ranked 2 or 3 (“Reconsider travel”) exclusively because of COVID-19 (most locations in the world were ranked 3 at press time). Incidentally, as I write this, only three locations, Macau, Taiwan and New Zealand, are ranked 1.

For the State Department’s Travel Advisories, visit and use the country search bar on the left side.

Planning on boarding a plane this year for an international trip? You may end up presenting your phone along with your passport.

Countries are requiring proof that visitors are COVID-free, and in March, in addition to showing the normal paperwork, passengers on at least five airlines were encouraged to download and use digital “health passports.”

For certain flights, Ethiopian Airlines, Singapore Airlines and Air New Zealand all requested passengers to download the International Air Transport Association’s Travel Pass app and present it on their screens before boarding. Using this app, trusted clinics upload people’s COVID-19 test results and vaccine statuses so that airlines don’t have to rely on paper receipts from passengers.

All Nippon Airways (ANA) and Qantas, too, asked passengers to download an app before a flight, this one called CommonPass. CommonPass works much the same way as Travel Pass.

The only US airline to use an app, so far, is jetBlue, which uses CommonPass for passengers flying between Boston and Aruba.

In addition to having access to travelers’ test and vaccine results direct from the sources, one advantage of these passes for airlines is that the type of test or vaccine that a person had is shown in the app. Some countries do not accept every kind of vaccine or COVID-19 test. For example, a country might not accept a negative result from a quick, 15-minute saliva test (an antigen test). Since both of the above-mentioned apps give testing and vaccine details, an airline can determine whether a passenger will be allowed to enter their destination country and may deny boarding to anyone who will not be allowed entry, just as they check for valid visas for certain countries.

But don’t go downloading anything yet. Other apps are out there, including Health Pass, by the company Clear, which already has biometric identification kiosks in airports throughout the US and plans to integrate those with its app. If you are interested in using an app to organize your COVID-19 status, check if your airline has a preferred one.

At press time, no country or airline required that a person show the proof on an app. Paper copies still were being accepted. But more countries and at least one airline (Qantas) are saying that they will require proof of vaccination, and using an app may end up being a preferred way to provide it.

Speaking of vaccines, on April 2 the CDC updated its domestic travel recommendations for Americans vaccinated against COVID-19.

According to the CDC, for fully vaccinated travelers (those who got their final shot at least two weeks earlier), it is no longer recommended that they be tested for COVID-19 before or after a trip, unless it’s required by their home state or destination, and they are no longer instructed to quarantine upon returning home. However, there is a small chance that a vaccinated individual could still become sick, so the CDC does ask that everyone monitor themselves for symptoms.

Vaccinated travelers are still encouraged to take normal COVID precautions, as well.

In my March column, I wrote about President Biden’s executive order mandating that masks be worn on all interstate public transportation in the US, including on all commercial and charter airplanes. Any passenger refusing to wear a mask on an airplane will be removed and risks being blacklisted by the airline. At the time of writing that column, more than 2,500 passengers had been blacklisted for not wearing masks.

Some passengers, however, haven’t taken kindly to being removed for not wearing masks and have lashed out against airline staff.

In a show of support for crew members who have to deal with poorly behaving passengers refusing to wear masks, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has taken the step of recommending large civil fines in court cases where the defendants are charged with breaking FAA regulations while also refusing to wear masks during flights.

For example, for a passenger on a Delta Air Lines flight in October 2020 who punched a flight attendant in the eye after he was asked to wear a mask, the FAA has asked that he be fined $27,500.

A fine of $20,000 was recommended for a passenger on a December 2020 jetBlue flight who shoved a flight attendant who had asked her to wear her mask, and a $12,250 fine was recommended for a passenger on a different December 2020 jetBlue flight who, among other things, drank from a personal bottle of alcohol and stood in the aisle during landing (both are violations of FAA regulations) in protest for being asked to wear his mask.

While flying during the pandemic has been full of stories like these, it’s nothing new to airline employees.

In order to better understand the experiences of airline customer service agents in airport terminals (a different set of people than those who work on board the planes), the US Government Accountability Office administered a survey in 2019 to 104 customer service agents working in four major US airports. The survey asked if those employees had experienced incidents of verbal and/or physical abuse during the months of April and May in 2019.

The results of that survey (released in August 2019), which predated the pandemic by almost a year, found that 92% of those surveyed had been verbally abused by a traveler at least once during those months. Even worse, 44% had been threatened with violence, 21% had been victims of attempted physical assault, and 12% had actually been assaulted.

More than a year later, and with the frustrations and stress that we’ve all lived through, those percentages have likely not dropped.

Considering the above reports, and as the world begins to open up to travelers, I would like to take this moment to remind readers that air travel is a privilege, even if it sometimes feels like a challenge.

Airline staff already know that delays are frustrating, economy-class seating is cramped and that no one likes having to wear a mask for the duration of a long flight. They did not come up with the rules, but they are tasked with enforcing them, and with some patience and cooperation from travelers, everyone’s experience will go a little bit more smoothly.

A CORRECTION to note —

After seeing her “What’s Cooking In…” column in the March 2021 issue, a piece on Cancún, Mexico, with a recipe for Tikin Xic Fish, Sandra Scott wrote, “The traditional bread I referred to is called pan de pulque, not plaque. It must have been an autocorrect. Sorry I didn’t catch that error.”

Enjoy this issue of ITN. With your continued submissions, suggestions and questions, we’ll do what we can to keep you informed, inspired and, hopefully, entertained.