Updated 25 February 2021
In light of the times, border restrictions remain in place for numerous countries around the world for fear of unwittingly exposing their citizens to the pandemic. Countries that do welcome international arrivals implement rigid entry rules and regulations, often involving on-arrival quarantine and testing measures. These severe limitations inevitably put international air travel in a debilitated state and efforts to restore it are set to be quite a monumental undertaking.
In a bid to help revive the international aviation, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) is in the process of launching its comprehensive “COVID passport”, with the aim of allowing air travellers to provide their COVID credentials to airlines and governments in a straightforward manner, thus granting entry into their destination.
What is the IATA Travel Pass?
IATA Travel Pass is a mobile application that helps travellers to store and manage their verified certifications for COVID-19 tests or COVID-19 vaccines. This will be important for governments that are likely to require either verified testing or vaccination proof as a condition of international travel during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The IATA Travel Pass will be more secure and efficient than current paper processes used to manage health requirements (the International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis, for example). This will be important given the potentially enormous scale of testing or vaccine verifications that will need to be securely managed.
Why is there a need for the IATA Travel Pass?
The IATA Travel Pass is conceived as a response to the following challenges:
Complexity and variety
The wide range of COVID-19 tests coupled with the varied requirements of governments worldwide have inevitably created a rather challenging setting wherein travellers, airlines and immigration authorities struggle to navigate.
Travellers are often left confused and in need of accurate and reliable information with next to no clue as to where to find them. Should they do come across the information, understanding or acting upon it may become problematic.
Inefficiencies, errors, fraud
The multitude of entry requirements may lead to confusion as check-in agents attempt to verify multiple non-standard test certificates presented by travellers. This may eventually lead to inefficiencies, errors and even fraud.
Rising to the challenge
IATA Travel Pass modernizes an existing system. For decades the world has relied on a paper documentation system for providing proof of vaccination. The most well-known is the requirement of many governments for a yellow-fever vaccination depending on our travel history and travel destination. Under the International Health Regulations, this is managed by the “yellow book” or International Certificate of Vaccination and Prophylaxis.
The IATA Travel Pass moves this to a digital platform and joins it with up-to-date information on entry requirements. This makes the process more convenient for travelers and helps avoid fraudulent documentation. This modernization will be crucial as government entry requirements are expected to evolve with the epidemiological situation.
An electronic process will be better able to manage the volumes of data that are likely to be needed and it will help passengers to adapt to any changes more easily in government requirements. Importantly, there will be paper-based alternatives for people who do not have mobile phones, albeit less convenient ones.
IATA is already managing health requirements through its Timatic solution, so IATA Travel Pass is a natural evolution to support the industry during the pandemic.
How does the IATA Travel Pass work?
The IATA Travel Pass has four open and interoperable modules which together create the end-to-end solution. IATA Travel Pass incorporates;
- Global registry of health requirements – enables passengers to find accurate information on travel, testing and eventually vaccine requirements for their journey.
- Global registry of testing/vaccination centers – enables passengers to find testing centers and labs at their departure location which meet the standards for testing and vaccination requirements of their destination.
- Lab App – enables authorized labs and test centers to securely share test and vaccination certificates with passengers.
- Contactless Travel App – enables passengers to (1) create a ‘digital passport’, (2) receive test and vaccination certificates and verify that they are sufficient for their itinerary, and (3) share testing or vaccination certificates with airlines and authorities to facilitate travel. This app can also be used by travelers to manage travel documentation digitally and seamlessly throughout their journey, improving the travel experience.
What can the IATA Travel Pass provide?
Rising to the aforementioned challenges, IATA is calling for systematic COVID-19 testing of all international travellers, along with establishing the required information infrastructure. By so doing, the travel pass will directly address these issues and provide benefits for all parties involved in the travel process.
For governments, the IATA Travel Pass will make it easier to duly verify the authenticity of the required tests and the identity of those presenting the test certificates. The Travel Pass is based on IATA’s views that a uniform testing regime would make for more effective safety and health protocol than that of quarantine requirements.
For airlines, the Travel Pass will enable them to accurately provide information to their passengers regarding test requirements and to verify that a passenger meets the requirements for travel.
For Covid test laboratories, the Travel Pass will provide the means to issue and securely deliver digital test or vaccination certificates to passengers that will be recognized by governments.
For travellers, the Travel Pass will enable them to procure accurate information on travel, testing (and eventually vaccine) requirements for their journey along with a number of other advantages:
- Enables passengers to find testing centers and labs at their departure location which meet the standards for testing/vaccination requirements of their destination
- Enables passengers to (1) create a ‘digital passport’, (2) verify their test/vaccination meets the regulations & (3) shares test or vaccination certificates with authorities to facilitate travel.
- Can be used by travellers to manage travel documentation digitally and seamlessly throughout the travel experience.
Key design elements
IATA prioritizes three key elements in designing the IATA Travel Pass, all of which extend to data security and privacy, globally recognized identity and vaccination verification, and enhanced contactless travel procedures. Details as follows.
Travellers are in control of their personal information and privacy
This means the IATA Travel Pass stores encrypted data which includes verified test or vaccination results on the traveller’s own mobile device. There will be no central database or repository collecting or storing this vital information. The traveller fully controls what information is being passed on to governments, airlines or other relevant authorities. By so doing, the highest levels of data privacy and security are effectively maintained.
Global standards recognized by governments to ensure verified identity and test/vaccine information
- Verified identity: By utilizing a government-issued ePassport to verify the identity of the traveller, the Travel Pass also allows the creation of a digital representation of the user’s passport. This allows the required information to be transferred electronically in a way that is secured and linked to their verified identity. This is done by harnessing the global standards developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which match biometric passport data and a selfie taken by the user. A Type 1 digital travel credential in line with ICAO standards is thus created.
- Verified test results or vaccine information: The main vaccination requirement for entry into some countries is the yellow fever inoculation managed by the “yellow card” or International Certificate of Vaccination and Prophylaxis. The World Health Organization (WHO) is currently developing digital standards that will make the system significantly more secure and prone to fraud. upon completion, the IATA Travel Pass will be able to accommodate and incorporate these global standards into its system. Until the COVID-19 vaccine has been widely available to the general public, the priority remains on COVID-19 testing. IATA has established partnerships with selected and established laboratories to securely link their test results with the verified identity of the IATA Travel Pass holder.
Enhanced Contactless Travel Procedures
Both convenience and biosafety will be enhanced with seamless integration into contactless travel processes. The ICAO CART recommendations for biosafety include the use of contactless travel processes to reduce the risk of virus transmission when documents need to be exchanged in the travel process.
What this means for travellers, is that the IATA Travel Pass will also tap into the potential for convenient contactless travel processes from check-in to boarding. As the world slowly recovers from the pandemic, the need for COVID-19 related verification may eventually disappear altogether, but the IATA Travel Pass will remain as a bold step forward in the implementation of contactless travel.
When will the IATA Travel Pass become available?
The first-cross border pilots are expected to start by the end of 2020 and the iOS and Android launch is slated for Q1 2021.
However, a recent webinar hosted by IATA and Evernym suggests that the IATA Travel Pass project is being carried out at an unprecedented pace to be ready for when governments re-open borders. IATA’s head of airport, passenger and security products, Alan Murray Hayden, announced that the app is expected to be rolled out in March 2021. Hayden further elaborated that the Travel Pass will be utilized by “most of the world’s biggest airlines” come the month of March.
To deliver immediate assistance to the industry, the Timatic enhancements for the global registry of health requirements will be available by end of January 2021.
Airlines implementing IATA Travel Pass
Singapore Airlines became the first to trial the use of IATA Travel Pass in December 2020. SIA will start with offering the service to customers travelling on flights from Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur to Singapore.
Following the Singaporean carrier footstep, the UAE carriers Emirates and Etihad also recently opted to trial the digital health pass.
Etihad will be offering the Pass to passengers on selected flights from Abu Dhabi in the first quarter of the year. Meanwhile, Emirates will implement phase 1 in Dubai expected to begin in April. In this initial phase Emirates customers travelling from Dubai will be able to share their COVID-19 test status directly with the airline even before reaching the airport through the IATA app, which will then auto-populate the details on the check-in system.
Panama is the first government to participate in a trial of IATA Travel Pass which will be essential to re-establishing global connectivity while managing the risks of COVID-19. The flag carrier of Panama, Copa Airlines, will be the first carrier in the Americas to trial the IATA Travel Pass.
Qatar Airways is set to be the first Middle Eastern airline to begin trialing the innovative new IATA Travel Pass from March 2021. The trial will play an important role in the airline’s vision to have a more contactless, secure and seamless travel experience for its passengers. The first phase of trials of the ‘Digital Passport’ will be rolled out on the airline’s Doha to Istanbul route, enabling passengers to receive COVID-19 test results and verify they are eligible to undertake their journey.
Malaysia Airlines and RwandAir are the latest addition to the growing list of airlines committed to doing trials with IATA Travel Pass.
All in all, around 20 airlines are set to trial the IATA Travel Pass come March 2021. Apart from removing the hassles of manually confirming and validating travellers COVID credentials, airlines also note that the IATA Travel Pass takes the issue of privacy very seriously. No passenger information is kept centrally; all data is stored on the passengers’ own devices and only they have the option of whether or not to share said data on their travels. In short, IATA does not have access to any data, it merely facilitates the transfer of data from the passengers to their airlines of choice.
IATA’s outlook on 2021
IATA’s latest analysis shows that the airline industry is expected to remain cash negative throughout 2021. Taking into account all considerations, the year’s weak start has prompted the airline industry to focus on three critical initatives as follows:
Careful planning along with months of preparation are required to prepare the industry to gradually restart following the debilitating disruption. Governments must ensure that airlines are prepared to reconnect people and economies by working with industry to develop the benchmarks and plans that would enable an orderly and timely restart.
The ramping up of various vaccination drives worldwide will inevitably play a key role. Efficient digital management of health credentials is therefore critical. Digital verification processes will be the only plausible solution to expedite recovery across the board. Be that as it may, any and all digital solutions must be secure and must emphasize the safeguarding of data privacy. The IATA Travel Pass focuses on setting the bar very high for managing health credentials, protecting against fraud and enabling a convenient travel process.
Speed is critical. Fraudulent COVID-19 test results are already proving to be an issue. There has to be a globalized solution adopting a globalized standard to support a successful restart at scale when governments open borders. While WHO, ICAO, and OECD are working on such standards, each day without them means the challenge gets bigger. Working in partnership is nothing new for airlines or for governments. Therefore it is imperative that all stakeholders work in unison to come up with a standardized solution to keep people safe and to eventually be able to restore their well-being and that of the economy.