In December 2020, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced that it is developing a new digital health credential solution that has the potential to reopen international travel and replace compulsory quarantine measures.
As more airlines are announcing trials of the IATA Travel Pass, due to be released in Q1 2021, FTE caught up with Alan Murray Hayden, Head Airport, Passenger and Security Products, to find out more about the technology behind the solution and how it can help restart global aviation.
So, what is Travel Pass? Travel Pass is a mobile app that will enable travellers to store and manage verified information on their health status, COVID-19 tests and vaccines, in line with any government requirements for testing or vaccine information. The concept of health passports has been around for a while – think Yellow Fever card – but digitising it will lead to more security and efficiency than traditional paper-based processes.
“If we look at the broader picture, what has really been driving this initiative is the way quarantine measures are heavily impacting the air transport industry,” Hayden tells FTE. “Earlier in the year we saw that when the Canary Islands lifted their quarantine, the load factors for airlines skyrocketed overnight. The solution to that is testing.”
There is, indeed, industry-wide consensus that testing is the right approach to the ever-changing quarantine measures. However, Hayden highlights that there are two main issues with testing – confidence and scalability. He explains: “When people do get tested, they turn up with a piece of paper and people don’t have confidence in that. And the second point is that agents still need to check these paper documents. And that’s what we are really trying to solve with this solution.”
Designed with the passenger in mind
The IATA Travel Pass is essentially a tool for travellers, but it also communicates with governments, airlines, test centres and vaccination providers to get verified information to those who need it in a safe and secure manner.
Hayden explains that IATA has worked closely with the International Airlines Group (IAG) to develop the technology base in four independent components that can interact with each other. These modules include a global registry of health requirements where the traveller can find accurate information on travel, testing and vaccine requirements; a global registry of testing/vaccination centres to identify testing centres and labs at departure location; Lab app, which allows authorised labs and test centres to securely send test results or vaccination certificates to passengers; and a digital passport module.
The solution is designed to be offered as part of the airline’s own mobile application, and the separate modules can either work together as one complete end-to-end solution, or separately to compliment systems that others are building.
“Within the airline app, passengers will be able to create a digital version of their passport, which is important when it comes to linking COVID-19 test results to the traveller’s identity,” explains Hayden. “Once the passenger has a digital version of their passport on their phone, they’ll go to the laboratory and scan a QR code, which creates a link between the passport details and the laboratory, so that they can verify the person’s identity.”
Moreover, the solution is also based on the foundation of IATA’s Timatic offering, which has provided reliable entry requirement information to airlines and travellers for over 60 years. Once the passenger receives their test results, they send them into the Timatic system, which then confirms whether they’re fit to travel.
“So, now passengers have three key things on their phone – their digital passports, test results and what we call an ‘okay to travel’. Passengers can then choose whether to share this data on the airline app. They will be prompted to submit their data and if they click on submit it will be sent to the airline. This is simple from a passenger perspective – literally with the click of a couple of buttons the airline now has all passenger’s details, and they’re 100% sure that the passenger is okay to fly.”
With the new app, IATA is also hoping to address some of the bottlenecks that could be created once passenger numbers bounce back again. “Replacing the paper documents with electronic version and using the verifiable credential will allow airlines to push all of this off airport, so passengers arrive completely documented,” explains Hayden.
Trials with SIA, BA, Etihad and Emirates
The first trials of the app will start in February with Singapore Airlines and British Airways, and just this week Etihad and Emirates also announced trials starting in April.
Prior to a full roll out, Emirates will implement phase 1 in Dubai for the validation of COVID-19 PCR tests before departure. In this initial phase, expected to begin in April 2021, 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 app, which will then auto-populate the details on the check-in system.
For Etihad Airways, the IATA Travel Pass will initially be offered to guests on selected flights from Abu Dhabi in the first quarter of 2021. If successful, the pass will be extended to other destinations on the Etihad network.
Hayden also shared with FTE that IATA is in conversations with 15 of the largest airlines in the world to start trialling the solution in the coming months.
The deployment of new and emerging technologies, such as digital health passports, however, brings with it a number of challenges, and protecting customer’s data is one of them. What is important to note about the Travel Pass solution is that it uses decentralised blockchain technology, ensuring there is no central database that could be hacked to access personal information. “This is the beauty of the technology we’re using; it puts the passenger in complete control of their data. There’s no central database and nobody can hack it. The passenger owns their data and they share it with the airline. It’s so powerful and it’s probably one of the first ever examples of blockchain technology being implemented in a way that benefits people,” Hayden says.
Need for standardisation
Moreover, now that COVID-19 vaccination continues apace, Hayden explains that the Travel Pass solution will be able to cater for both COVID-19 test results and vaccination. However, he urges the whole industry to look into the bigger picture. “What we need is electronic vaccination certificates. This is the only thing that will make society free again to do all the things they need to do.”
He adds: “And that is one part that IATA is pushing really hard for. Governments are focusing on everybody getting vaccinated as a health issue, but the other part of the equation is the proof of vaccination. IATA is committed to working with the World Health Organization and other bodies to come up with the necessary standardisation.”