EDITORIAL: Governments can restore travel through digitalization

Despite months of airline industry campaigning for governments to lift borders, eliminate quarantines and enable international air travel to begin restoring to at least some level of normalcy, the opposite is happening.

Quarantines are being reintroduced or lengthened, often with additional conditions, such as testing before and during quarantine and a requirement that travelers must stay at government-approved hotels throughout the quarantine at the traveler’s cost. “Travel bubbles” are being burst, in some cases before they even left the bottle; negative tests are an increasingly common mandate, but they are on top of, not instead of quarantines. And now the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reported to be pushing the new Biden administration to impose a negative Covid-19 test for all travelers ahead of domestic US flights (tests began being required for all incoming travelers to the US from Jan. 26).

The reasons for the clampdowns are understandable. Governments and health organizations are naturally concerned about the new virus strains; vaccination programs are for the most part rolling out slower than had been hoped; no test is 100% accurate and paper test results can be forged.

Still, indefinitely cutting the world’s connectivity isn’t the answer. And there is a better solution: digitalizing the testing and vaccination system would make it easier for people to get what they need to travel safely and their test results would be far less susceptible to fraud. Travelers could then securely share the proof of a negative test and/or vaccination with airlines, border authorities and perhaps even hotels, convention centers and concert halls, demonstrating that they are an extremely low travel risk.

IATA is developing such a program, Travel Pass, with its member airlines. Its advisory board represents airlines worldwide. They are funding the program so that the Travel Pass app would be free to travelers. But what they need is government buy-in, both to harmonize global testing standards and to approve participating testing labs. ICAO and the World Health Organization could lead this push to governments to endorse its safeness and emphasize its criticality to reconnecting the world and restarting economies. Without that, livelihoods and lives are at risk.

“There is a safe way to manage international travel and not make it a scapegoat,” IATA SVP airport passenger cargo and security Nick Careen told journalists in a brief Jan 27. “We cannot continue to operate like this; it’s death by a thousand cuts.”

The mechanisms are there to breathe life, not death, into the global air transport industry. ICAO has published standards to create digital travel credentials from ePassports. These, with the ICAO CART safe travel protocols, are an essential component in digitally matching travelers to their vaccination and testing certificates. The challenge is implementation and governments must step up.

Karen Walker

Karen Walker is Air Transport World Editor-in-Chief and Aviation Week Network Group Air Transport Editor-in-Chief. She joined ATW in 2011 and oversees the editorial content and direction of ATW, Routes and Aviation Week Group air transport content.