IATA Urges Adoption of Digital Health Documentation

 - May 26, 2021, 10:14 AM
IATA modeling shows that wait time at airports would increase to eight hours by the time traffic recovers to pre-Coivd levels if digital health certificates don't replace paper documentation. (Image: IATA)

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) on Wednesday warned of potential airport chaos unless governments move quickly to adopt digital processes to manage travel health credentials and other Covid measures. Speaking during the latest in a series of IATA webcasts dedicated to the effects of the pandemic on the air transport industry, association director general Willie Walsh cited modeling that showed a lack of digitalization could result in “chaos” at airports once traffic recovers to around 75 percent of pre-Covid levels.

Even today, with travel volumes only about 30 percent of 2019 levels, data indicates that airport processing times have increased to three hours during peak periods. The models further show that time spent at airports would reach 5.5 hours per trip at 75 percent of pre-Covid traffic levels and eight hours per trip at full pre-Covid volumes.

“Already, average passenger processing and waiting times have doubled from what they were pre-crisis during peak time—reaching an unacceptable three hours,” said Walsh. “And that is with many airports deploying pre-crisis-level staffing for a small fraction of pre-crisis volumes. Nobody will tolerate waiting hours at check-in or for border formalities. We must automate the checking of vaccine and test certificates before traffic ramps up. The technical solutions exist. But governments must agree on digital certificate standards and align processes to accept them. And they must act fast.” 

Walsh further noted that advances such as pre-check-in have allowed travelers to arrive at the airport essentially “ready to fly.” With digital identity technology, border-control processes increasingly have become self-service. Paper-based Covid-19 document checks would force travelers back to manual check-in and border-control processes.

Walsh also stressed the need for globally recognized, standardized, and “interoperable” digital certificates for testing and vaccine credentials. According to IATA, digitalized certificates would help avoid documentation fraud; allow advance checks by governments; reduce crowding and waiting time in airports through integration with self-service check-in; increase security with the use of digital identity management by border control; and reduce the risk of virus transmission through person-to-person exchange of paper documents.

Walsh said the G7 Summit, which starts on June 11, offers a good opportunity for governments to cooperate on international documentation standards.

“This cannot wait,” insisted Walsh. “Booking patterns tell us that pent-up demand is at extremely high levels. But governments and the competent authorities are acting in isolation and moving far too slowly.

“A good first step would be G7 agreement, with industry input, on a common set of Covid-19 travel requirements,” he added. “The next step would be implementing and mutually recognizing those requirements. If the G7 took these leadership measures, the freedom to travel could be seamlessly restored for about a third of all journeys. Other countries could build on that leadership for a safe and efficient global restart of connectivity.”