Will COVID passports bring air travel back?

COVID | Mar 01, 2021 | By Satair | 6 min read

Numerous surveys have found that travellers are eager to return to the skies as soon as it is both safe and allowed to do so. And following the worst year in commercial aviation history, airlines are eager to welcome passengers back on board. Can ‘COVID passports’ speed up the process?

Vaccinations are widely seen as the safest route back to unrestricted travel. But with mass inoculation still months away, and new COVID variants causing renewed border closures, a number of governments and aviation industry players have discussed whether requiring passengers to verify they’ve been vaccinated could jumpstart international travel. 

The idea is that passengers who could produce a so-called ‘COVID passport’, digital proof that they’ve either been inoculated or have recently tested negative, would be able to travel without having to quarantine upon arrival. 

The concept is not altogether new. For decades, entry into certain countries has required passengers to prove that they have been vaccinated against infectious diseases like yellow fever, rubella, and cholera. 

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No consensus amongst governments

To date, no country has announced that proof of vaccination against the coronavirus will be mandatory upon entry. But the European Commission has announced plans to introduce a Digital Green Pass sometime in March. Commission Chief Ursula von der Leyen said the pass would provide proof of vaccination and COVID test results for those who have not yet been vaccinated. 

"The Digital Green Pass should facilitate Europeans‘ lives," she wrote on Twitter. "The aim is to gradually enable them to move safely in the European Union or abroad - for work or tourism."

Israel, the early leader in the global race to vaccinate, has already introduced a so-called 'green pass' app that allows access to cultural events. Although Israel's vaccination certificate programme cannot be used for travel, it will serve as the first large-scale test of how apps that prove vaccination will work.

Other countries including Denmark, Estonia and Poland have also announced plans to introduce some form of vaccine passport and the World Health Organization has said that it is working on an electronic vaccination certificate that could be used for travel. 

photo of phone showing corona passport

IATA: Uniform standards needed

With governments not yet on the same page at the time of writing, the fate of COVID passports may rest in the hands of the private sector and the aviation industry itself. But relying on airline employees and border officials to check and verify proof of vaccination or negative test results would be overwhelming and ineffective without the adoption of uniform standards, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) argues. 

IATA has suggested that its Travel Pass app could be the solution for jumpstarting travel with a shared set of playing rules for the whole industry rather than a mix-match of individual national solutions. The Travel Pass app, which is expected to launch in the first quarter of 2021, would serve as an all-in-one “digital platform for passengers”, containing relevant entry requirements, arrival testing locations as well as “the ability to share their tests and vaccination results in a verifiable, safe and privacy-protecting manner”.

Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO, argues that the Travel Pass is the best way forward after the “catastrophe” the industry faced in 2020, especially in light of the new COVID variations.

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“The world is more locked down today than at virtually any point in the past 12 months and passengers face a bewildering array of rapidly changing and globally uncoordinated travel restrictions,” he said in February. “We urge governments to work with industry to develop the standards for vaccination, testing, and validation that will enable governments to have confidence that borders can reopen and international air travel can resume once the virus threat has been neutralized. The IATA Travel Pass will help this process, by providing passengers with an app to easily and securely manage their travel in line with any government requirements for COVID-19 testing or vaccine information.”

Etihad Airways and Emirates are expected to start testing the Travel Pass as early as March and up to 40 other carriers are reportedly in talks with IATA about using it as well.

Airlines hesitant to require "COVID passports"

While IATA represents 290 airlines that account for over 80 percent of total air traffic, at the time of writing there was no guarantee that its Travel Pass would get off the ground, let alone become the industry standard. In fact, it’s not even a certainty that the industry will be able to agree on requiring proof of vaccination at all. 

The first, and thus far only, airline to officially announce that it would require proof of COVID vaccination was Australian carrier Qantas, which plans to implement its vaccine requirement “between the middle-to-end of 2021”.  

Additional airlines have suggested that proof of vaccination will be necessary but have been less definitive in their statements. In an interview with the US television program Today, Delta CEO Ed Bastian said that proof of vaccination will likely “become a requirement” for international travel.  Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr also anticipates that vaccine certificates “will probably be an option” in the return to widespread air travel but told broadcaster Deutsche Welle that “as an airline, we neither can nor want to stipulate that.” 

But other airline executives have expressed resistance. AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes has said his airline will not demand proof of vaccination and that those decisions are better left to governments. Other Asian airlines struck a similar note. A Korean Air spokesperson told CNBC that requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination “is not a policy we can independently decide” while a spokesperson for Singapore Airlines told the same outlet that the airline would follow government guidance rather than set its own vaccination policy. 

Photo showing arm of person receiving vaccine shot

Concerns about individual rights and privacy

AirAsia’s Fernandes said that demanding proof of vaccination may infringe on travellers’ civil liberties, a concern echoed by other industry players like the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC). 

“We should never require the vaccination to get a job or to travel. If you require the vaccination before travel, that takes us to discrimination,” WTTC chief executive Gloria Guevara said in January.

The UK-based civil liberties group Big Brother Watch has warned that vaccine passports “would create the backbone of an oppressive digital ID system and could easily lead to a health apartheid that's incompatible with a free and democratic country”. Even the US-based Linux Foundation Public Health, which supports vaccine passports and is working on developing universal standards for them, cautioned that these apps “could lead us to a techno dystopia” if not handled properly. 

The University of Exeter released a study in December discouraging digital health passports, arguing that they could infringe on “several fundamental rights” and would discriminate against those unable to receive the vaccine. 

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Timing may be key 

Whether COVID passports can speed the airline industry recover seems likely to come down to two things: timing and government buy-in.

On the former, Drummon Reed of the digital identity firm Everynym reminded the New York Times that it took 50 years to develop the global passport system and a decade or more for governments to agree on how to add verifiable biometrics to paper passports. 

“Now, in a very short period of time, we need to produce a digital credential that can be as universally recognized as a passport and it needs an even greater level of privacy because it’s going to be digital,” he said. 

As for the latter, IATA’s FAQ about the Travel Pass highlights the industry’s conundrum by stressing that it does not have any actual authority to require proof of vaccination.

“Governments, not airlines and not IATA, make the rules on entry requirements for travellers,” the group writes. “Governments will also decide if vaccinations will be mandatory or voluntary for their populations.”