Practically since the pandemic began, world governments and airlines have been talking about the prospect of health passports as the key to unlocking international travel.
Nearly a year later and the first versions of these silver bullets are beginning to be rolled out. American Airlines is already using an app to verify passengers’ Covid status on select flights, while the European Commission is set to approve similar technology for use in the EU this week.
But what exactly are health passports? When will we be using them? And do they work? Today we’ll try to answer these questions and more.
What are health passports?
Simply put, health passports are pieces of technology used to certify if someone has recently tested positive for Covid-19 or has been vaccinated against it. Usually these take the form of an app on your phone, allowing you to upload documentation to the system and then travel freely without the risk of spreading the coronavirus.
The first organisation to develop an app for the current pandemic was the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), who launched their AOKPass in March 2020. The ICC are currently holding talks with over 170 airports worldwide, with AOK founder Chester Drum predicting the first passengers to travel using the app in the next two months.
Several other developers have recently unveiled similar pieces of technology, including iProov in the UK and a joint venture in the US between Microsoft and Oracle called the Vaccination Credential Initiative.
What Do Airlines Think
US Airlines have been quick to realise the importance of vaccination in reopening international air travel, with Delta CEO Ed Bastian hailing the arrival of widely available vaccines as a ‘turning point’ for the travel industry in 2021.
Being able to verify whether a passenger has been vaccinated or recently tested negative for the coronavirus is therefore hugely beneficial to airlines, allowing passengers to travel freely with little risk of spreading or contracting the virus.
Furthermore, from January 26 all travelers to the US will have to provide proof of a negative covid test before boarding a plane, making health passport technology not just convenient but essential.
American Airlines is the first major carrier in the US to adopt health passports, partnering with app developer VeriFLY to allow passengers to upload their Covid test results before boarding a flight. The service is already available to travelers flying from the US to Jamaica, Chile, Colombia, El Sal, Guatemal and Honduras, and will be made available worldwide on January 23.
Meanwhile, the International Air transport Association – which represents some 290 air transport companies – is currently developing its own health passport platform, which will be made available in early 2021. The technology is evidently of great importance to the aviation industry, which is among those hardest hit by the global pandemic.
Will They Work?
It’s hard to say. Health passports offer a serious advantage: allowing transport companies to make use of both testing and vaccination programmes to help reopen international travel.
However, a lot of their efficacy depends on vaccination rates. At present, a little over of 4% of Americans have received their first vaccine dose, despite CDC promising that 20 million Americans would receive their first shots by the end of 2020. Furthermore, the government and FAA are still failing to prioritise vaccinations for airlines workers, meaning that even if some passengers are vaccinated, the pilots themselves might not be.
Nevertheless people are getting vaccinated, which could potentially open up a world of travel after an incredibly isolated year. New research out of Israel – the country furthest ahead in the vaccination race – shows that those inoculated with the Pfizer vaccine show very little risk of even spreading the disease. This means we may not have to wait for herd immunity to kick in before allowing people to travel from Covid infected regions.
What is required now is for the government, and regulatory bodies like the FAA, to support travel operators in making the best use of this technology, as well as prioritising transport workers for vaccination so that they can look after passengers again safely.