EU’s Covid Pass Risks Disrupting Air Travel

 - July 1, 2021, 9:00 AM
A European Commission table shows the overlap of Covid vaccination and testing validation processes member states have adopted.

Airlines and airports across the European Union have voiced concern that varied implementation of the bloc’s Digital Covid Certificate (DCC) system, which takes effect July 1, will disrupt operations and hamper the restoration of free and safe movement of citizens within Europe during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Four associations—airports group ACI Europe, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Airlines for Europe (A4E), and the European Regions Airline Association (ERA)—earlier this week sounded alarms following a report from the European Commission’s transport directorate-general, DG Move. The report highlighted discrepancies between member states in their implementation of the DCC. 

The system calls for no fewer than 10 combinations of validation of the EU DCC in the aviation sector, the commission report revealed. It noted that the multitude of national approaches and solutions “will lead to unnecessary duplication of measures and as a consequence, queues and crowding at airports, which are problematic both from a health perspective as well as from the perspective of operational efficiency.” In a June 28 joint letter to the EU heads of state and government, the four trade bodies used stronger language and outright warned that “the risk of chaos at European airports is real.”

According to IATA, average check-in processing times have increased 500 percent to 12 minutes per passenger and the time spent navigating airports during a journey has doubled to three hours from one and a half hours before the pandemic. “Our research shows that if nothing is done, average processing times could reach a staggering eight hours per passenger once traffic levels return to 2019 levels," IATA European vice president Rafael Schvartzman told AIN. "This would be unacceptable—and it can be avoided if EU member states standardize their DCC protocols. Implementation of the DCC must be harmonized across the EU or travelers will experience significant delays.” ACI Europe expects passenger traffic to increase nearly threefold from 47 million people in May to 125 million in August.

The EU DCC, previously called the Digital Green Certificate, proves—via a QR code with a digital signature to protect against falsification—that a person has been vaccinated against Covid-19, received a negative test result, or recovered from the virus. Passengers can also obtain a paper certificate, and both versions are free. National authorities oversee the issuance of certificates. Test centers, hospitals, or health authorities could issue them, or travelers could get them directly via an e-health portal. Member states have agreed on a common design and all will accept the DCC.

The DCC does not amount to a travel passport, and health measures in the various European countries continue to determine travel restrictions—also within the EU—even though the EU sets bloc-wide recommendations based on information provided by European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). In other words, the EU Digital Covid Certificate holder should in principle be allowed to travel freely within the EU, yet member states could trigger an “emergency brake” and impose additional travel restrictions if they deem them “necessary and proportionate” to safeguard public health from, for instance, new virus variants.

The EU DCC system is an EU regulation, so all member states have to employ it. However, national governments hold responsibility for the actual implementation of the regulation and the system—hence, the patchwork of unaligned and often duplicated or even triplicated verification of the certificate at departure and upon arrival. 

“The level of fragmentation we are seeing from member states in implementing and verifying the DCC is alarming,” A4E managing director Thomas Reynaert told AIN. “What’s worse is that airlines still do not have the necessary tools or information to verify passengers’ certificates as needed, which will inevitably create confusion and frustration.” He called on the bloc’s member states to follow the guidelines from the European Commission and implement the DCC in “a uniform way.”

All EU countries have begun running the system to issue and verify certificates; only Ireland is not yet connected to the EU DCC gateway through which all certificate signatures can be verified across the EU.  Brussels has helped member states to develop national software and apps to issue, store, and verify certificates.

Hoping to streamline the DCC verification processes, the commission has issued non-binding guidelines and best practices. In line with the latest European Aviation Safety Agency/ECDC Aviation Health Safety Protocol, the commission said no medical reason exists to check the EU DCC more than once during a journey. “Indeed, an EU DCC, which is authentic at check-in before departure, is still valid at departure [boarding] and upon arrival,” it noted, advising that the authorities at departure and arrival points cooperate to create a “one-stop” system at the departure side of the journey.

Airport infrastructure is typically not equipped to handle systematic checks of each passenger upon arrival; therefore, travelers should avoid on-arrival verification. Rather, the commission recommends that passengers get verified as early as possible and ideally online during, for instance, the online check-in process with Passenger Locator Forms (PLFs). The commission also advises member states to perform spot/random checks instead of full systematic checking. “The very fact that passengers know they run the risk of being caught without or with fraudulent health documentation such as the EU DCC is usually enough to deter them from infringing the rules,” it asserted.