Airlines Prepare To Launch ‘Covid Passport’ In Bid To Revive International Travel

Fed up with waiting for governments to come up with a way to enable people to cross international borders without enduring weeks-long Covid-19 quarantines, the airline industry’s global lobby group is preparing to launch a sort of “Covid Passport” that would allow their passengers to cross borders with ease.

The International Air Transport Association, or IATA, on Monday said it plans to introduce this month a mobile phone app that arriving travelers could use to prove that they’ve been vaccinated for the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 and tested negative for it. Conceivably the app, which IATA is calling The Travel Pass, also could become necessary for domestic flights should airlines begin requiring all their passengers to document their Covid-19 vaccination and testing status.

No governments as yet have said they will accept such digital documentation from travelers as a way for them to escape the quarantines currently required by many nations for arriving foreigners. Nor have any of the small number of nations that have shut their borders almost entirely to entry by foreigners said they would once again begin allowing passengers if they can prove they’ve been vaccinated.

But IATA, which represents nearly 300 airlines that collectively carry 82% of all air travelers globally, is acting now so that its member carriers can begin ramping up their international operations as Covid-19 vaccines begin being administered, presumably in a matter of weeks.

For months IATA and most airlines around the world have been urging governments to create some sort of system that could speed the return to life of the almost-dead international travel industry once vaccinations become widely available. Now, with nations still employing an enormously confusing and even incoherent crazy quilt pattern of rules and regulations regarding the entry of foreign travelers, IATA and its member airlines are hoping to force nations to come up with consistent global standards that will make international travel easy once again despite Covid-19.

Two vaccines, one made by Moderna and the other by the team of Pfizer
and BioNTech, have completed their testing programs and the companies have asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency authorization to begin distributing those vaccines. A third vaccine, developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University in the United Kingdom, may be not far behind the other two.

U.S. officials have suggested that under President Trump’s “Warp Speed” program to rapidly develop and deliver vaccines — using passenger and cargo airlines, trucking companies, and railroads along with military planes and trucks — the first doses will be administered to Americans sometime this month.

Even then, however, it will take at least until next summer before a sufficient number of Americans have received the shots for the possibility of virus transmission to be reduced to levels low enough to make most Americans feel safe when flying again. Beyond that, achieving something approaching so-called “herd immunity” around the globe, or even in just those nations with advanced economies, could take more than a year.

Still, airlines around the world, which continue collectively to lose more than $200 million a day in cash because of historically weak demand as a result of the pandemic, are eager to get people flying internationally again. In 2019, they collectively carried, on average, more than 2.5 million passengers a day globally, with nearly half of those flying between nations. But so far this year, IATA says international travel – that which crosses at least one international border – has been down about 92% from 2019. Overall travel – international plus domestic travel – is down globally about 70% from a year ago.

The U.S., which unlike many physically smaller nations has a huge domestic air travel market in normal times, saw demand drop by as much as 96% during the early stages of the pandemic in March and April. It has bounced back some since then, but that bounce has been slow to materialize and demand still remains ruinously weak. In fact, on Sunday the Transportation Security Administration cleared 1,176,091 travelers through its U.S. airport checkpoints on Sunday, as Thanksgiving vacationers returned home. That was the single biggest day for checkpoint clearings since the pandemic began. Yet, that figure was just 40% of the 2,882,915 travelers cleared through TSA checkpoints on the corresponding Sunday after Thanksgiving last year.

Because demand remains extraordinarily weak – and because demand for international travel, which typically is sold at much higher prices still is running at around only 10% of last year’s international demand – U.S. carriers are continuing to post daily cash losses of more than $50 million, combined.  

Thus, they and their foreign competitors are all seeking to pave the way for a significant and speedy recovery in demand as vaccines become widely available. However, they also expect governments to remain very cautious about allowing foreigners entry. Thus, the industry is seeking now to use technology to make it easy for customs agents to determine whether arriving travelers indeed have been immunized against Covid-19.

IATA CEO Alexandre de Juniac, said the key to doing that will be making sure travelers not only get vaccinated but also tested before flying. Their medical records documenting vaccination and negative tests for Covid-19 then would be recorded in an official data base accessible to customs agents in every nation. Then, when a traveler shows his or her Covid-19 Passport to a customs agent – either upon arrival in a foreign nation or upon returning to their home country, the agent would be able to compare that information against the data base. In theory that would happen at the same time the agent checks the person’s actual passport and, if required, their visa and other travel documents to confirm their identity, slowing the customs clearance process by only a matter of seconds.

“Testing is the first key to enable international travel without quarantine measures,” de Juniac said Monday in announcing IATA’s planned Covid Passport app.

“The second key is the global information infrastructure needed to securely manage, share and verify test data matched with traveler identities in compliance with border control requirements,” he added.

IATA’s app would include directions for users on how and where they can get vaccines and, subsequently where and how they can be tested for Covid 19 prior to taking a flight. Not all the details, including who will pay for any tests done by departure airport or airline staff, are yet clear. But IATA is promoting its plan as a low or no cost proposition.

The diplomatic de Juniac, a former CEO at Air France, is set to retire in April and to be replaced by Willie Walsh, the longtime CEO of International Airlines Group. IAG is the the parent of British Airways, Aer Lingus, Spain’s Iberia and several smaller airlines. Walsh retired from IAG in September.  While de Juniac worked behind the scenes mostly to rally leaders within the ultra-competitive and fractious industry to support IATA’s plan, Walsh, known as an aggressive manager who does not shy away from challenges, can be expected to be a more forceful actor in pushing governments around the world to participate in IATA’s Covid Passport program. He, like de Juniac, will argue that IATA’s Covid Passport plan will help immensely in getting nations’ now-moribund travel and tourism sectors going again. In many cases, Walsh and other industry leaders can be expected to push the notion that the Covid Passport concept will prevent the financial failure many nation’s high-profile big airlines along with the failures of many of their hotel and other hospitality and entertainment businesses.

Airlines lack authority to require travelers be vaccinated against and free from Covid-19 to enter the nations to which they carry those travelers. But they can change the wording in their contracts of carriage, to which all passengers must agree (typically by clicking on a button on their computer screens when purchasing a ticket) to require vaccinations and/or negative tests for Covid-19 before they board the airline’s planes. Last week Qantas Airlines CEO Alan Joyce said his carrier very likely will be the first carrier to do just that.

Given Australia’s geographic isolation and relatively small population and domestic air travel market, Qantas is heavily dependent on international travel for the revenue it needs to survive. But during the pandemic it has cancelled a huge percentage of its international flights because of the difficulty Australians face trying to enter other nations and that foreigners have trying to enter Australia.

Joyce’s expectation, like those of some other airline bosses around the world, is that by acting on their own to require travelers to be vaccinated and tested they will force governments to drop or modify their current Covid-19 quarantine policies. Doing that, the airline leaders hope, will trigger a significant increase in travel demand as more – and more desirable – destinations open up once again to foreign business travelers and tourists.

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