On March 8th, Singapore Airlines announced their plan to pilot a coronavirus digital travel pass recently developed by the International Air Transport Association (IATA). This app is meant to store and share passengers' health information, specifically relating to COVID-19 testing and vaccinations. While this might be a first step we take to get back to pre-Covid travel, it also raises many questions and doubts. Will this mean quarantine-free travel? What about the potential use of such a travel pass moving forward?
COVID Travel Pass: Why Do We Need It?
Of all the industries to suffer as a result of the global pandemic, none were as affected as the aviation industry. In 2020, it experienced a 61% loss in global air traffic, from a predicted number of 4.7 billion passengers to 1.8 billion. For Singapore specifically, this meant a decline from 68.3 million passengers at Changi Airport in 2019 to just 11.8 million in 2020, a 82.7% drop. Making the situation even worse, the revenue loss due to the pandemic according to IATA has been highest for airlines registered in the Asia Pacific, an overwhelming $113 billion dollars making up 36% of the global industry revenue loss.
The key to resuming air travel safely, without fears of importing COVID-19 is access to accurate information. This is a two-way communication: on the one hand, passengers need to be informed of the most up-to-date information required to travel, and on the other hand governments and airlines need to standardize their requirements and have access to accurate passenger data. The current information infrastructure does not meet these requirements.
IATA outlines three main challenges currently facing the airline industry: information gaps, inefficiencies and errors, and a high degree of complexity. Passengers don't have access to latest travel requirements, especially given that they can change on a daily basis, and can often be a requirement specific to an airline or an airport, rather than the government of the country you are travelling to.
Inefficiencies and errors can often occur when multiple documents aside from the COVID-19 test itself are required for travel, most of which have varying formats. The complexity surrounding the travel requirements, from entry to layover to exiting a country make it very difficult to navigate to passengers, airlines and authorities.
In light of all these inefficiencies, keeping track of systematic COVID-19 testing as well as the new vaccine rollout will present even more challenges and more chaos. This is where the new IATA Travel Pass comes in, as it aims to standardize the travel requirements and access to passenger health information. This Travel Pass will help governments verify document authenticity, labs issue certificates recognized around the world, airlines report accurate passenger health information and travelers access accurate information on travel requirements.
Travel Pass: How Does It Work?
The Travel Pass will serve four main functions:
Registry of Health Requirements
Registry of Testing and Vaccination Centers
Travel Pass App
Passengers will be able to easily access information on travel requirements for layover and destination countries, as well as airport and airline entry and exit requirements. They will also be able to find testing and vaccination centers, and authorities will be able to ensure that only authorized labs issue test results or vaccination certificates. The travel pass will serve as a digital passport where passengers will be able to share their health information with authorities.
The main goal of this digital passport is to enable more people to travel and to do so in a safer and a more convenient manner. If this app proves to be successful, it could enable quarantine-free travel and help us transition from the COVID-19 testing phase to hopefully the vaccine phase where we could start to see the easing of restrictions.
Singapore Airlines are the first to test the IATA Travel Pass between March 15 and March 28, followed by trials with Qatar Airway, Emirates, Etihad Airways and at least 15 other airlines. SIA have actually tested a similar concept based on IATA's app back in December 2020, trials proving to be safe and convenient. In addition to the airlines, IATA is currently in conversations with other governments on potential use of the Travel Pass.
Travel Pass: What Are the Risks?
As with most apps, there is often the risk of fraud and data breach. In addition, many worry about how the potential use of this Travel Pass could change in the future. While the WHO has urged authorities not to make vaccination proof a condition for international travel, IATA has clarified that it will not have any influence on travel requirements, as it is up to the governments to decide and airlines and passengers to follow.
However, soon after vaccinations began around the world, so did the conversations about making them mandatory, be it limited to travel, or a requirement more broadly to return to work. For those fearful or skeptical of the vaccine, such a Travel Pass may just be a foreshadowing of things to come.
The usefulness of such a travel passport largely hinges on it being accepted internationally. While some countries whose economies strongly rely on tourism such as Greece and Spain are in favor of such a proposal, others like Germany and France are more sceptical.