Calls to Prioritize Aircrew and Seafarers in COVID-19 Vaccination Program

Several organizations are calling on countries to prioritize COVID-19 vaccinations for aircrew and seafarers as travelers return. 

International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Secretary General Dr. Fang Liu and the heads of the International Labour Organization (ILO), the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the World Health Organization (WHO) signed a joint statement on March 26. 

“The implementation of the current WHO recommendations are of primordial importance to the continued and optimal operation of the international civil aviation network, and therefore to the transport worldwide of essential shipments and workers,” Dr. Liu declared. 

The total number of pre-pandemic licensed aviation professionals, including pilots, air traffic controllers, and licensed maintenance technicians, was 887,000 according to ICAO statistics. Air transport carried about 5.7 billion passengers in 2019, and airfreight pre-pandemic represented 35% of the value of goods shipped in all modes combined.

The joint statement stresses the WHO’s advice that at the present time countries should not introduce requirements of proof of vaccination for international travel as a condition of entry, given both the critical unknowns regarding the efficacy of vaccination in reducing transmission, and the limited global availability of vaccine doses. 

It also emphasizes that maritime and air transport are essential activities underpinning global trade and mobility, and key to a sustainable socio-economic recovery, and notes the full joint support of the participating agencies for the timely development of an international harmonized framework for vaccination certificates to facilitate international travel for seafarers and aircrew. 

“As the joint statement draws attention to, the application of stringent public health rules to these key workers, including quarantine, has resulted in hindered connectivity, operational complexity, and significant costs,” Dr. Liu noted. “The statement also calls on governments to prioritize seafarers and aircrew in their national COVID-19 vaccination programs, together with other essential workers, in accordance with the WHO SAGE Roadmap for prioritizing the use of COVID-19 vaccines.” 

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has also published a Safety Information Bulletin containing operational recommendations related to the vaccination of air crew.

It notes that WHO recommends prioritizing transport workers, which include aircrew, in phase 3 of the vaccination rollout, unless they have additional risk factors, in which case they would be prioritized on an individual basis. Several countries have included among their priority lists for phase 1 and/or phase 2 the crew members involved in helicopter emergency medical services and air ambulance services, some of whom may have already received one dose of vaccine prior to the issuance of EASA’s safety bulletin.

The bulletin notes that the side effects of COVID-19 vaccinations are generally mild and usually common to any type of vaccine, e.g. headache, mild fever, nausea, pain at the site of injection, dizziness, gastrointestinal disorders, lymphadenopathy, thromboembolic events, etc. These side effects have shown to be more frequent between 12 and 48 hours following the vaccination and, in isolated cases, with a potential extended duration of up to seven days. Severe side effects are extremely rare and were cited to be more frequent among the persons with multiple allergies and tend to appear immediately, in the first 30 minutes following the vaccination. Side effects were also reported more frequent following the second dose of the vaccine.

Although the vast majority of side effects reported so far are mild and do not put into question in any way the safety of the approved vaccines, they may be further enhanced by in-flight conditions while at cruise level, such as lower air pressure and mild hypoxic environment. 

At this time, no evidence is available regarding the impact of in-flight conditions on the severity of the side effects, nor on the resulting impact on the performance of the crew members during their safety related tasks.

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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