Airlines are encouraging people who have received a COVID-19 vaccine to fly once again. Yet social media posts falsely claim that airline executives around the world are discussing banning vaccinated passengers due to a risk of blood clotting at high altitudes. Experts say there is no evidence of an added risk of blood clots for vaccinated air travelers.
After a steep decline in air travel in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the severe impact on the industry, airlines are trying to make it easier for vaccinated travelers to fly — and providing rewards for doing so.
For example, American Airlines is offering a mobile app that makes it easier for travelers to verify that they are vaccinated and ready to fly before they arrive at the airport.
United Airlines is hosting a “Your Shot to Fly” sweepstakes. Every day in June, a COVID-19 vaccinated United member has a chance to win a free roundtrip flight for two; five people will win yearlong passes.
But a viral Instagram video falsely claims airlines are considering grounding passengers who have received a COVID-19 vaccine. “Airline Executives around the world are now meeting to begin discussions as to the banning of those vaccinated from travelling on airplanes due to the threat of blood clots at high altitudes,” reads the text on the post.
“Airlines in Spain and Russia are warning people who have been vaccinated against coronavirus not to travel because of the risk of blood clots,” says a reporter in the video. “Well, this is a well-known risk of long-haul flights, but it apparently is exacerbated by the potential side effects, the clotting side effects, of the COVID-19 vaccine.”
The post was shared by Shannon Kroner, who has spread other false claims about COVID-19 vaccines, as we’ve reported.
Posts falsely claiming that there is a risk for vaccinated air travelers have been shared on Instagram since late May. “Airlines are meeting today to discuss the risks of carrying vaxed passengers due to the risk of clots and the liabilities involved,” reads a similar post with more than 4,000 likes. “Oh the irony only the non vaxed can fly.”
Contrary to these posts, there is no evidence of airline executives meeting to discuss the risk of blood clots or banning vaccinated travelers.
Kalliopi Lazari, a spokesperson for the International Air Transport Association, or IATA, said in an email to FactCheck.org that the organization is not aware of any airlines considering a ban on vaccinated passengers due to a blood-clot risk.
“We advocate that people who have been vaccinated should be free to travel without restriction,” Lazari said.
Responding to the claim in the video about airlines in Spain, a spokesperson for Iberia, Spain’s flag carrier airline, told us in an email, “It is completely false that Iberia has made any similar recommendation. Like all European airlines, we apply the [European Union Aviation Safety Agency] and [European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control] recommendations.”
Those agencies issued a joint document on June 17 on updated safety protocols for airlines due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The agencies’ press release on the guidelines states: “In line with current scientific evidence and the European Council recommendation, the Protocol proposes that people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or who recovered from the disease in the last 180 days should not be subject to testing or quarantine, unless they are coming from an area of very high risk or where a Variant of Concern is circulating.”
No Evidence of Risk from COVID-19 Vaccine
Contrary to the viral posts, medical experts say there is no evidence that vaccinated travelers face an increased risk for blood clots at high altitudes due to the COVID-19 vaccine.
“This sounds patently false. I would not have any concerns about vaccinated individuals traveling by air,” Dr. Adam Cuker, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, told us in an email. Cuker’s research and clinical expertise is in blood clotting and bleeding disorders. “I am not aware of any evidence of an increased risk of thrombosis in [vaccinated] individuals with air travel.”
Unrelated to vaccines, long-distance travelers can develop a type of blood clot known as deep vein thrombosis, or DVT, after extended periods of immobility. The risk of DVT during sedentary travel has been a concern of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A DVT typically forms in the leg and is more common than the 36 rare blood clot cases in the United States that have been associated with the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine. The individuals in those rare cases suffered from a combination of a type of blood clot called cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, or CVST, and low levels of blood platelets, a condition known as thrombocytopenia.
CVST forms in the brain and can possibly lead to a stroke. Experts have given the condition linked to the J&J and AstraZeneca vaccines the name vaccine-induced immune thrombotic thrombocytopenia, or VITT.
“We do have a medical advisory group that looks at health and air travel issues. This is not an issue on their agenda,” Lazari, of the International Air Transport Association, said of the claims circulating on Instagram about vaccinated travelers. “We are also not aware of any suggestion in medical literature that the particular blood clot phenomenon (known as Vaccine-Induced Immune Thrombotic Thrombocytopenia or VITT), which has been designated as a rare side effect of one or possibly two types of COVID vaccines, has any impact on air travel.”
“The blood clot phenomenon (Vaccine-Induced Immune Thrombotic Thrombocytopenia or VITT) is a different disorder from blood clots in the leg (deep vein thrombosis) and/or lung (pulmonary embolism) which can be associated with immobility, in particular following surgery, limb injury, bed-rest, or sometimes prolonged sitting during travel,” Lazari said.
“Aside from immobility, there are many risk factors including pregnancy, oral contraceptives, certain cancers, being overweight, varicose veins, and underlying disorders of the clotting system. Cases which occur in association with long-distance travel (air, rail or road) usually have pre-existing risk factors such as these, and those who are known to be susceptible can be prescribed medication to reduce their risk,” Lazari also said.
The CDC says abnormal blood clots in veins and arteries are associated with COVID-19. “In some people with COVID-19, we’re seeing a massive inflammatory response, the cytokine storm that raises clotting factors in the blood,” Panagis Galiatsatos, a specialist in lung diseases and critical care at Johns Hopkins Medicine, said in a November blog post.
The CDC recommends that individuals should not travel internationally until they are fully vaccinated.
Editor’s note: SciCheck’s COVID-19/Vaccination Project is made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation has no control over our editorial decisions, and the views expressed in our articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation. The goal of the project is to increase exposure to accurate information about COVID-19 and vaccines, while decreasing the impact of misinformation.
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