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Industry momentum gathers for “vaccine passports” across region

Airlines believe the Travel Pass will be a key to recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, confirming passengers have been tested and vaccinated before they fly. But which pass should be used? Or should it be a one size fits all document? Associate editor and chief correspondent, Tom Ballantyne reports.

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April 1st 2021

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The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is increasingly concerned that a proliferation of travel passes or “vaccination passports” being trialed by both private companies and governments will add even more complexity to air travel. Read More »

The airline body is lobbying hard to ensure governments establish a global standard for the systems on offer.

Little wonder. With digital documentation ensuring an airline passenger has been tested and vaccinated against COVID-19 emerging as critical to the recovery of air travel, several versions of the passes are being trialled across the globe.

They include IATA’s Travel Pass, which is undergoing live trials with several airlines, including Singapore Airlines (SIA), Korean Air and All Nippon Airways. On March 17, IATA announced the arrival at London’s Heathrow Airport of an SIA flight from Singapore carrying the first travellers using the Travel Pass app to manage their travel health credentials.

The flight was the second phase of SIA’s Travel Pass trial and was operated on the Singapore-London route from March 17-March 28.

The airline group said if the Travel Pass pilot was successful, “it would pave the way for the integration of the entire digital health verification process into the Singapore Air app from around mid-2021, using the IATA framework”.

“The successful implementation of the IATA Travel Pass in this trial with Singapore Airlines passengers demonstrates technology can securely, conveniently and efficiently help travelers and governments manage travel health credentials. The significance of this for the re-start of international aviation cannot be overstated,” said IATA’s then director general, Alexandre de Juniac, in late March.

While working with IATA, some airlines have been trialing other apps. Qantas Airways and Cathay Pacific Airways have been testing CommonPass, developed by a nonprofit public trust. It is operated by The Commons Project on an open, independent, sustainable, not-for-profit basis.

It said countries need to trust a traveller’s record of a COVID PCR test or a vaccination administered in another country. Countries also will need the flexibility to update their health screening entry requirements as knowledge of the pandemic evolves and science progresses. Airlines, airports and other travel industry stakeholders will need the same. “The Commons Project, together with The World Economic Forum, is working to initiate the CommonPass framework to address those challenges”, the non-profit organization said.

It is not alone. The European Commission (EU) is proposing the introduction of a COVID passport that could allow 450 million Europeans to travel freely between countries from the northern summer. Digital Green Certificates would be delivered to EU residents who can prove they have been vaccinated. They also will be available to individuals who have tested negative for the virus or have proof they have recovered from it.

At press time, Qantas Group CEO, Alan Joyce, warned Australia was at risk of falling behind the rest of the world “if we don’t open international borders once vaccinated”.

De Juniac said IATA had not claimed “a monopolistic” situation with its Travel Pass. The association recognizes there will be others. “If there are too many systems we are concerned it will add complexity to airline operations and, of course, complexity for passengers – which would be very bad news,’’ he said.

“We are advocating a reduced number of systems for simplicity and security reasons. Otherwise, it will be difficult to convince governments and passengers that having thousands of different passport apps or whatever is a secure system that will avoid reinfection and transport of the virus when flying.”

IATA believes global standards for the system will happen and it will be good news. “Then, with this unique standard you can have a certain number of digital systems or digital apps that could work with that standard. We should have a unique standard to effect the key features with which this system or app should comply.”

To gain maximum benefit from the IATA Travel Pass, the standardization of test or vaccination certification and acceptance by authorities is critical. A recent IATA poll of travelers found 89% agree with the need for global standards and 80% are keen to use a mobile app to manage their travel credentials.

Last month, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) endorsed the establishment of global standards for testing/vaccination certification, bringing travel passes closer to reality.

The next step is up to governments. They need to develop a digital COVID-19 test/vaccination certificate when people are tested or vaccinated so there is a verifiable document on their mobile devices. “This will ensure equivalence, mutual recognition and acceptance of COVID-19 certifications for passengers when they travel around the world,” said de Juniac.

For airlines there are enormous challenges in this process, some of them explained by Joyce. There are a number of parties involved, he said, including airlines, the application providers and governments.

“Governments are doing their own testing on essential input required from airlines. The government has an immigration system in Australia and this is essentially an extension of that. When we check in somebody, the data will pass to the government. They will say if it is valid to check in a person from a visa requirement point of view. We think from a vaccination and testing point of view,” the Qantas Group CEO said.

“The reason we are testing multiple applications is to work with our government as well. We have been doing this on repatriation flights to see if it meets their requirements and understand the pros and cons of each of them. We have not come to a conclusion on that.

“We did one test last week with CommonPass from Frankfurt to Darwin and that test with the government is critical as well. There are lots of issues to resolve. There’s acceptability of different vaccinations. There’s Sinovac, the Chinese one. There’s Sputnik V, the Russian one.

“Are they going to be acceptable to governments? How do you confirm the validity of being vaccinated? With the Australian side that’s easy. It’s going to be with the health system that’s here and that will be linked in, we are told, to their system. We will receive the approval to check in somebody or not based on the Australian side of it.

“But coordinating all the other countries? That is where IATA could potentially play another role. I know every other airline is testing with their own government so hopefully they will all come together at the right time.”

Like many airlines, Qantas believes several governments are going to make vaccination a condition of entry or exit. “Iceland is the first country that has come out and said it is going to be the case there. Other countries are talking about it. The Brits are, the Europeans are and I think the Australian prime minister did say it is either going to be that or hotel quarantine,” Joyce said.

“We are waiting to see what governments decide about this process, but we are looking at our own terms and conditions and saying: ‘do we have a duty of care to our passengers and to our crew’?

“There will be exemptions. People have immune deficiencies and we would have procedures in place to help with such risks. The vast majority of our customers say it’s a great idea. Over 90%, last time we surveyed, said they would feel a lot more comfortable travelling on an aircraft if they knew everybody was vaccinated.

“To get international back up and running you must have a confidence boost. That knowledge will be the single biggest confidence boost. Apart from it being a health and safety issue and apart from it being a government issue, which it is likely to be, it is one of the main drivers to get them back flying.”

At press time, IATA’s Travel Pass was being trialled by 25 airlines worldwide, but director general and CEO, Willie Walsh, who succeeded de Juniac on April 1, has made it clear his airline members want it to be temporary measure.

Unlike some security measures still in place years after they were introduced following the 9/11 terror attacks on New York’s World Trade Centre towers, he insists any regulations and health measures must be removed once the pandemic is over.

“Airlines fully acknowledge and understand the political need for governments to impose restrictions,” Walsh said in his first press conference after taking up his new role at IATA. “But it also is very important for governments to start planning for the removal of restrictions as the health crisis abates.

“We want to work with governments so they can better understand what will be required from airlines. It is not going to be easy for airlines just to ramp up activity. It will have to be done in a structured, coordinated and safe fashion. There is a lot of work to be done.

Obstacles to “vaccine passports” continue to be raised, most particularly by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Earlier this month, WHO’s regional emergency director for the western Pacific, Dr. Babatunde Olowokure, said: “We understand travel restrictions have had significant economic impacts on every country.

“At the present time, the WHO’s position is national authorities and travel authorities should not introduce requirements of proof of COVID-19 vaccination for international travel as a condition of departure or entry for a number of reasons.”

WHO’s main reasons for its viewpoint is “the efficacy of vaccines in preventing transmissions is not yet clear and secondly, the current limited global supply of COVID-19 vaccines’’.

Qatar Airways advocated single global vaccine passport
Qatar Airways Group CEO, Akbar Al Baker, expects vaccine passports to be mandatory for international travel. Like many of his airline peers, he sees that document as critical to a recovery in travel.
Speaking after a four-hour Qatar Airways flight to nowhere where all passengers and crew were fully vaccinated, Al Baker said he would like a single global system led by the International Air Transport Association and the World Health Organisation.


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