International Travel: A Summer Of Hope And Frustration

Credit: IATA

The 2021 northern summer season opened with many in the industry and would-be travelers hopeful of a recovery in international air travel, at least in the leisure and tourist sectors. Vaccination rollouts boosted those hopes, but by the end of June the picture was looking gloomily similar to that of summer 2020.

While summer leisure traffic levels are almost fully restored in domestic markets, most notably the US, international markets are hampered by two related issues: closed borders and mandatory quarantines and/or inconsistent rules on immigration policies and how virus testing or vaccination documentation are verified.

In Europe, airlines, airports and aviation associations pointed out there were at least 10 different approaches among 27 European Union member states under review ahead of a July 1 EU Digital COVID Certificate (DCC) implementation deadline. This not only signaled a lack of the documentation verification harmonization that the aviation industry wants, but also could lead to some immigration authorities doing document checks on arriving passengers—potentially leading to long queues and congestion in airports.

In a joint letter to EU heads of states, IATA, ACI-International and A4E noted, “Verification of the DCC must take place well in advance of departure and ahead of passengers arriving at the airport (off airport), together with Passenger Locator Forms and without duplication of checks. [Our] organizations noted that increased document checks have resulted in average check-in processing times increasing by 500%, to 12 minutes per passenger.”

Progress on digital testing and vaccination certification, like the development of effective vaccines, has been considerable. Among the most notable are IATA’s Travel Pass, the EU’s Green Pass, the Good Health Collaborative’s Good Health Pass and the Commons Project’s Common Pass. But big challenges and questions remain around government standards for such programs, as well as interoperability.

At a Future Travel Experience and APEX virtual expo on digital health passports, Good Health Collaborative executive director Dakota Gruener said the organization, launched earlier this year to develop the Good Health Pass, had brought together well over 100 companies from across the technology, travel and health sectors to define what makes a good health travel pass and how to ensure it was a seamless experience that works across geographies for both testing and vaccination.

“We’re just now at the moment where all of that is down on paper and we’re ready to take it to the industry for public comment,” Gruener said.

Travel Pass trials

IATA head of airport, passenger and security products Alan Murray Hayden said the association was working with about 55 airlines that were trialing Travel Pass and talking with another 60 that were expected to become involved within two weeks, helping to address the critical issue of scalability.

“[The IATA Travel Pass] enables passengers to create a digital version of their passport and then import their itinerary. And, similarly, import tests and vaccination results from verified sources that are sufficient for their itinerary. And then most importantly, share that information with airlines, airports and governments before they arrive at the airport,” he said.

Hayden acknowledged the process was “far from being perfect,” but said developers were “constantly reiterating new modules and we just completed the proof of concept with the vaccination module. And you'll see some of these new modules coming on board. And as governments come up with new regulations, we will keep adding to it.”

Most important, international travel recovery likely depends on such systems.

“People need to be able to prove they’ve been vaccinated, off airport, share that information with airlines, and get back to self-service check-in. Without that happening, simply put, our industry will not open up again,” Hayden said. “We actually believe this functionality should be embedded within airlines’ own check-in systems, kiosk, web, and mobile apps. That’s the way we see it in the future.”

Commons Project senior adviser Simon Talling-Smith said trust and privacy were important foundations of any digital health credential. The Common Trust Network, he said, makes sure the privacy of users’ health information and their personally identifiable information is paramount. “We don’t share it and we don’t disclose it. Our architecture is built so that all data is distributed and held on the user’s device. We don’t cull copies of users’ original health certificates,” he said. “Instead, we create an entry pass that has been checked against the rules of entry and can be shared both on a phone, as a QR code, and as an application programming interface (API). And it’s already being connected as an API in a live production environment, with governments and soon with airlines around the world. Common Pass is operational, is in production in the Americas, and in Europe, and in Asia, and in trial in all of those continents with many other players. And indeed, in Africa, and soon, South America as well.”

Lufthansa Group senior director-product management ground & digital services Bjoern Becker said scalability and interoperability were key. The airline group, which has trialed digital ID solutions including The Common Pass for North Atlantic routes and the IATA Travel Pass for SWISS, also uses its own processes.

Multiple solutions

Another possible gamechanger, Becker said, was the EU Green Pass. “However, that will only help us in the first step for inter-European flights,” he said.

“My hypothesis is that it will not be one solution; we will always work with a lot of solutions. And the core point is thinking about this from a customer perspective. Because all the good solutions will not help if customers don’t use them. And that is one of the major challenges: If we don’t get the take rates picking up, and if with all the good solutions we have, our passengers will still show up at the airport with a piece of paper, then we are all screwed up in this whole ramp-up process. It will not work; we will not be able to ramp up to the number of passengers we are at least hoping to see.”

Gruener said a decentralized approach is needed for scalability.

“Open standards are key to interoperability and participation. And with that, I think we need to be very realistic and very pragmatic about how we operate in a world with multiple different solutions out there,” he said.

But different government standards are complicating these digital solutions.

“When I look at all our solutions, they all do a couple of things brilliantly,” Hayden said. “But governments are coming up with ridiculous regulations—passenger locator forms, all different types of forms to prove testing and all this other stuff—that nobody can automate. And really, that’s where the challenge is going to be. On the positive side, I do see that once travel starts again and there’s long queues at the door of airports, that the governments will start changing their rules very quickly or legislators will get voted out of office, quite frankly. Consumers will not put up with a mess, which is coming down the road if things don’t change.”

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Linda Blachly

Linda Blachly is Senior Associate Editor for Air Transport World and Aviation Week. She joined the company in July 2010 and is responsible for producing features for Air Transport World’s monthly magazine and engaging content for the She is based in the Washington DC office.