Travel passes may be the next big trend of 2021.
Last month, Qantas ignited a debate when CEO Alan Joyce announced that the airline would possibly require international travelers to immunize themselves against COVID before flying (whenever vaccines are ready and accessible). This being as an alternative to the 14-day quarantine that passengers are not happy about.
In a statement, the airline declared, “It’s likely that other countries—and possibly airlines—will require vaccination against COVID-19 before allowing entry. This already happens with yellow fever and polio in some parts of the world.”
Experts have contrary opinions about making vaccines mandatory. While some think a vaccine might encourage travelers who are wary of getting on a flight and restricted by quarantines, others think a vaccine won’t be available globally until late next year and the industry won’t be able to survive such mandates. Plus, out of the 150 vaccines under development, which ones would the passengers need to take? And will this make flying a privileged person’s game?
Vaccine policies may take some months, if not more, to be standardized. For now, airlines and destinations have different rules, from a negative test to quarantine mandates for safe flying.
What Are Airlines Saying?
Opinions vary. American Airlines has said that it’s too early to discuss vaccine policies. Lufthansa and its subsidiary Brussels Airlines will not make a COVID vaccine a requirement, but it is running trial flights where only passengers with negative tests are allowed to board. An antigen rapid test with its partner Ecolog is offered free of charge at the airport and results are emailed within 60 minutes, which are visually checked at the gate.
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A lot also depends on federal and state laws around the world. Korean Air also hinted that it’s most likely that airlines will require it, but only after coordination with governments. New Zealand has kept its border shut to most travelers and it has managed to control the spread of COVID-19. When asked about vaccine policies, Air New Zealand said in an email, “Ultimately, it’s up to governments to determine when and how it is safe to reopen borders and we continue to work closely with authorities on this.”
Reuters reported that the Airports Council International—a trade group that represents airports worldwide—is not in favor of the vaccine mandate, fearing it would become a deterrent and impede reboot efforts of the aviation industry, much like quarantine requirements. “The industry cannot wait till vaccination becomes available worldwide. During the transition period, tests and vaccines together will play a key role [in] the industry recovery,” said ACI World Director General Luis Felipe de Oliveira.
The airline trade group International Air Transport Association (IATA) doesn’t take a position on vaccines but it has been recommending testing (instead of quarantine) as a measure to prevent transmission, reopen borders, and, thereby, revive the aviation sector.
And there’s one more thing that IATA is working on: a digital travel pass.
From closed borders to institutionalized quarantine to COVID-19 negative tests, travel has been a roller coaster ride in 2020: unpredictable and nerve-wracking. The latest development on this front is a digital travel pass, which might be used globally to store and show COVID test reports and later, maybe immunization cards.
Airlines around the world are asking travelers to get tested before flying: either a day or two before or undergo rapid testing at the airport. The purpose is to reduce transmission and import of the virus while traveling and to instill faith in travelers as well as governments that air travel can be safely pursued.
Now, the IATA Travel Pass (currently under development) will offer information to passengers about global requirements, lab locations, and types of tests; register approved labs for testing and vaccines and develop an app for them to securely share results with passengers; and provide a digital passport with “OK to Travel” status recognized by airlines and governments. It has also taken into account privacy issues and it complies with global privacy regulations. IATA is hoping to make this a universal pass with global recognition.
As a matter of fact, Singapore Airlines has built a digital verification process based on the Travel Pass framework—the first in the world with IATA’s stamp. It operated a flight recently where passengers who went for tests at selected clinics in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta were given a QR code on their test report (paper or digital), which was later scanned at the airport with an app. The airline is planning to incorporate the full process in its app and add more features for timely verification of test reports and vaccinations.
But Singapore Airlines isn’t the only one employing technology to streamline these processes. CommonPass, an app developed by the World Economic Forum and Swiss non-profit Commons Project, is being tested on selected flights; United Airlines, JetBlue, Lufthansa, Swiss International Air Lines, and Virgin Atlantic are some partners working with the app. It is also finding support from governments, labs, healthcare workers, and trade associations (Airport Council International has joined the network).
It aspires to create a global network. Passengers will be able to download the CommonPass app, check the requirements they need to fulfill to visit their destination, get information about certified labs, get tested/vaccinated, and upload their health data (test or vaccine reports) that can be scanned—that’s the plan.
Of course, there are security concerns, especially in this age of data theft. Such apps would need layers of protection. And what if restaurants, hotels, and museums start asking for this data before admission? What would be the exceptions for those who can’t get vaccinated for any reason? A blanket rule, as always, can’t apply.
There are still many wrinkles, but it’s a fact that vaccine policies are nothing new. To enter certain African countries, passengers get the yellow fever vaccine jab and show proof of immunization at airports.
But the resistance to the COVID-19 vaccine seems higher. Airlines struggled with mask mandates, banning people who didn’t comply with the rules. Similarly, travelers may also spurn airlines for introducing vaccine-related rules; many due to religious reasons, allergies, or misinformation and conspiracy theories.
The anti-vaxxer movement has been in full swing, even before the vaccine was approved, with Facebook groups and social media posts fervently warning against vaccines. Americans have shown reluctance because of the rapidity with which vaccines have been developed. It hasn’t helped that the federal response has been tepid and officials have downplayed the virus. In September, willingness to get immunized showed a decline, with a mere 51% saying they will get the vaccine were it available today, according to a study. Public confidence grew to 61% in December, but many remain uncertain.
Herd immunity can be achieved against the virus when 70% of the population gets inoculated, but it is going to be a long battle for healthcare workers and governments. Meanwhile, industry-wide recovery will depend on how fast inoculation happens to prevent transmission, laws to determine measures for safe travel, and how quick airlines, states, and healthcare experts formalize the way forward. Things will remain unpredictable and experimental for the next couple of months—until the world aligns.