Op-Ed: The Digital Health Passport Blind Spot: What The Industry Is Missing

IATA travel pass
Credit: IATA / Flickr

According to the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, on May 2, daily airport screenings were more than double versus levels seen at the beginning of 2021. 

What’s more, traveler volume reached 54% versus 2019. The U.S. domestic travel rebound is undoubtedly gaining momentum as the industry eagerly awaits news out of the UK on summer travel corridors. 

There is also pent-up demand for international travel. According to a recent Longwoods International survey, only 31% of respondents said they were traveling domestically instead of internationally in the next six months. 

Lately, we’ve witnessed a flurry of activity around the beta testing of digital health passports (DHPs). While the concept of DHPs is not without controversy, DHPs can provide a safe and responsible solution to ease the current barriers to travel. But can they alone power a global travel resurgence?

Interoperability and standardization are widely accepted as the main barriers to mass adoption of DHPs. However, is there a more basic question the aviation and wider travel industry should be asking? 

Despite the industry’s best efforts, there will always be those passengers who resist any level of government or enterprise oversight of personal data. There will certainly be a substantial overlap between cohorts of people who are comfortable returning to international travel but uncomfortable with the concept of a digital health passport. 

The airline industry must be conscious of this “blind spot” and keep privacy concerned consumers in mind when designing solutions for COVID-era travel. This likely means considering analog and digital options alike to facilitate cross border travel. 

Interoperability and standardization aside, reducing friction in general is key for mass adoption of digital health passports. User prompts, like pre-populating customer data in form fields, can make a substantial impact. For example, our airline and enterprise travel clients experienced a 12-fold increase in ancillary revenue just by giving an option to auto fill a customer’s visa application with data from their booking record. 

But user experience doesn’t stop with digital touchpoints. It translates into the physical world and becomes an extension of customer service. 

Applied to COVID-era travel, both digitally expedited (fast lane via DHP) and standard (slow lane via low or no tech proof of vaccination) options are critical to drive consumer confidence and bookings. Currently, the industry is all in on fast lane product development. But where does this leave the passenger with privacy concerns? 

Programs such as Global Entry in the U.S. and Nexus in Canada are designed to expedite immigration passage. Similarly, travelers will soon have a fast-track option with digital health passports. But equally important is the maintenance of a slow lane for those who decide not to pre-declare their health status. It can’t be a one-size-fits-all solution.  

Think about a passenger arriving, fully vaccinated, at the airport. But boarding is denied, because they did not digitally produce vaccination proof or a negative test result. While some airports provide on-site rapid PCR testing, distribution remains fragmented.  

What if that same traveler above were presented with another, slow lane option that resulted in a more positive experience? This would reduce customer service pain points, providing both airline staff and passengers with more optimal outcomes. 

Travelers are already used to this multi-path system: at check in, based on fare class; and security, based on expedited clearance. 

In the past, personalization focused mainly on acquisition and loyalty. Going forward, personalization will permeate the functional travel experience according to an individual’s health status and permission-based data sharing.

None of this is to say the road to recovery will be a smooth one. Collaboration between governments, airlines, airports, health providers, and technology platforms will need to happen at unprecedented scale and speed. 

As we saw with the rapid pace of vaccine development, the public and private sector can work together, to achieve a global common good. As an industry, we need to consider our customers and tap into their varying comfort levels regarding the return to travel. The immediate future of travel depends on it. 

Max Tremaine is co-founder and CEO of sherpa˚, a Toronto-based technology startup with products that guide customers through complex and ever-changing travel restrictions and entry requirements during trip planning, pre- and post-booking, and day of travel.


1 Comment
Once again, no mention of those carrying antibodies.
I can produce a document saying I have antibodies, therefore, I am as protected if not more protected than those that took the one trick pony experimental vaccine.