This story is part of AIN's continuing coverage of the impact of the coronavirus on aviation.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is preparing to launch a new “digital health pass” intended to give airline passengers, carriers, and governments a straightforward way to share information about Covid-19 tests and, eventually, vaccinations. The industry group hopes the new IATA Travel Pass will allow governments to remove or simplify obstacles to cross-border travel.
In a November 23 press briefing, IATA said a pilot version of the new application should be ready for initial use by the end of this year. A complete version for Apple IOS devices should be ready during the first quarter of 2021, followed by an Android version in the second quarter. The app is being built in a modular way on IATA’s existing Timatic system, which already covers passport and visa requirements, and also the One ID initiative that since 2019 has formed the basis for IATA’s Contactless Travel App.
According to Alan Murray Hayden, IATA’s head of airport passenger and security products, the Travel Pass will give governments the means to verify the authenticity of tests and the identity of those presenting the test certificates. The group hopes this will give governments the confidence to lift quarantine requirements that it says continue to be a major disincentive for travelers to book flights.
IATA director general Alexandre de Juniac said that the latest guidelines published on November 21 by the ICAO Council’s Aviation Recovery Taskforce (CART) provide a strong foundation for harmonizing requirements for testing, and for public health corridors between countries. “The multi-layered approach recommended by ICAO has been the bedrock of our safety blueprint,” he told reporters. “We must start reopening borders now without delay.”
Calling on governments to accept initiatives by ICAO and IATA to address the need to mitigate the spread of Covid infection via air transport services, the association said that airlines cannot afford to wait until the second half of 2021, which is when it believes vaccines will be widely available around the world. In the meantime, it argues that a harmonized testing regime for travelers and aircrew represents a more effective public health measure than what it regards as ineffective quarantine requirements.
In addition to supporting governments, the IATA Travel Pass will give travelers accurate information on test requirements in different countries, as well as about where and how they can get tested. It also provides a data-secure way for them to pass their test results to airlines and border authorities. The Travel Pass is designed to give airlines the ability to provide accurate information to their customers and also verify that each passenger meeets travel requirements. For Covid test laboratories, the app creates the means to issue digital certificates to passengers that will be recognized by governments.
According to David Powell, a medical advisor to IATA, new rapid antigen tests should be introduced as a more cost-effective alternative to the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests that are currently the most commonly used Covid test for travel purposes. While acknowledging that these may not yet be quite as accurate as PCR tests, they provide fast results at a low cost. IATA is advocating that the tests be conducted as close as possible to the planned flight.
Asked about press reports in recent days about a study into how a pre-symptomatic passenger on an Emirates flight from Dubai to Auckland infected four fellow travelers in September, Powell said that the incident does not undermine IATA’s contention that infections during flights have been very rare. He said that there have only been around 50 inflight cases and half of these were accounted for by two flights back in March, at a time when masks were not required.
The IATA media briefing took place on the same day that Australian carrier Qantas announced it will require proof of Covid vaccination for all passengers on international flights. Powell said that this approach is “a strong possibility” in other countries where infection rates are low.
During the same briefing, IATA officials also called for waivers for slot-use regulations to continue to be relaxed until the end of the 2021 summer travel season. “[Traffic levels for] unique city pairs are still in decline,” said Sebastian Mikosz, senior v-p for member and external relations. “Airlines need the flexibility to build the schedules that passengers want to fly. This is what we got through the slot waiver and it’s what we still need through next summer. Vaccines are a game-changer but even with these the industry will only slowly enter the restart mode.”
According to Lara Maughan, IATA’s head of worldwide airport slots, airlines need an urgent decision from governments on extending the slot waiver. She explained that slot holdings and returns need to be finalized between January 15 and 31, ahead of the start of planning for the summer travel season on March 28, 2021.
IATA reported that more than 46 million jobs have been lost in the air transport and travel sectors worldwide in the wake of the Covid pandemic. The group says the industry's global economic impact has been diminished by $1.8 trillion.