Will a digital health passport help us fly again?

National governments in Asia, Australia and Europe have rolled out contact-tracing apps to curb the spread of Covid-19 on home soil, but what if similar technology could be harnessed in the skies and effectively bring the travel industry back to life?

• Biosecurity clearance that supports a ‘test and trace’ approach is recommended
• Study shows consumers are willing to sacrifice privacy for right to travel
• Implementation is, however, easier said than done

National governments in Asia, Australia and Europe have rolled out contact-tracing apps to curb the spread of Covid-19 on home soil, but what if similar technology could be harnessed in the skies and effectively bring the travel industry back to life?

Biometric identification to verify an individual’s health status can help restart air travel

This may seem far-fetched, but later this month, a blockchain-powered health app, which has been backed by the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), will be tested on a flight from Madrid to Canary Islands.

The Health iCard App, known as Hi+ Card, was developed by Madrid-based Tourism Data Driven Solutions (TDDS) and securely stores medical records to certify that travellers are Covid-free.

In a statement, TDDS CEO, Antonio López de Avila, said the app is compliant with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) and creates a unique Digital ID for each user based on data supplied by a national authority and accredited health entities.

“So, there is no chance of creating fake profiles or manipulating the medical records. Users ask these entities to directly store the info, in a cryptographic and secure way, in their profiles using the blockchain,” he said.

A similar app has also been developed by the International Chamber of Commerce, which teamed up with a number of global organisations, including medical and security services firm International SOS, to develop ICC AOKpass.

“The app allows users to privately and securely verify their health information with third parties anytime, anywhere,” AOKpass co-founder Dorjee Sun told TTG Asia.

“It can adapt to whatever rules apply to any given country, based on medical science, regulation and best practice as they evolve,” he said.

Biosecurity is the new normal
Global leaders in the travel and tourism industry also support the use of biometric identification to help kick-start regional and international travel.

On June 25, the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) released a new set of guidelines that advocate a ‘test and trace’ approach to replace “highly damaging” quarantine measures.

“This is consistent with advice from WHO (World Health Organization) and other leading health authorities that the best way to control and reduce the spread of the Covid-19 virus, is through early identification of carriers to ensure they don’t travel,” WTTC president & CEO, Gloria Guevara, said.

WTTC’s advice includes the systematic roll-out of biometric identification at each stage of the travel journey.

Responding to questions by TTG Asia, a WTTC spokesperson said the organisation supports technologies that establish a traveller’s identity using government-issued ID (like a passport for international travel or a driver license for domestic travel) and integrate biometrics such as e-certificates for Covid-19 testing and/or vaccination.

“Test certificates, for travel use, are defined by governments and should include test result, date of the test, test type, testing location, and test result. In the immediate term, as tests are not broadly available, a self-declaration symptoms questionnaire may be required,” the spokesperson said.

Creating a global standard?
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) also supported the use of biosecurity measures as part of a “layered approach” to reopen borders.

“There is no single measure that will reduce risk and enable a safe re-start of flying. But a layering of measures that are globally implemented and mutually recognised by governments can achieve the needed outcome,” IATA director general and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac, said.

The recent opening of travel bubbles in Europe and a ‘green lane’ between Singapore and China are examples of such ‘mutually recognised’ measures. But these are in their infancy and, for the most part, based on bilateral agreements.

If there’s any hope of reviving the international travel industry before the discovery (and deployment) of a vaccine, a digital heath passport must be recognised globally.

According to PATA CEO Mario Hardy, that’s easier said than done.

“The WHO, ICAO and other UN agencies can certainly recommend best practices, but may not have the ability to enforce adoption. In order to be valid, a digital health certificate/passport would have to be issued by governmental health authorities,” he said.

Digital health passports have to be implemented by governmental health authorities: Hardy

Hardy suggests the best way forward is to incorporate health information into existing processes such the Advance Passenger Information System (APIS), which the airline industry uses to transfer security information to government authorities.

“In addition, rapid testing needs to be available at departure/arrival and for that information to be transmitted to the destination’s health authorities as well as recorded in a contact tracing app,” he said. “There are several variations of this scenario being discussed with authorities around the globe, however none of them are 100 per cent perfect.”

Privacy concerns
Apps like AOKpass, according to Sun, can help to connect the various checks and balances that exist in each country, while also ensuring the strict protection of personal data.

“If different and incompatible digital health passport systems are adopted across countries, this will substantially increase the time and cost for government authorities, businesses and travellers to comply,” he explained.

“Digital health passports that rely on centralised systems to access/store personal health data will also infringe on the privacy rights of individuals.”

After months of lockdown, travellers may even be more willing to share their personal data if it means a safe return to the skies.

A recent survey by telehealth and travel insurance provider, Global Rescue, revealed that 91 per cent of travellers are prepared to share personal medical history and their travel plans as a pre-condition to returning to travel.

Travel agents play a guiding role
Digital solutions that enable a ‘low-touch’ travel experience will likely prevail. Cybersecurity will therefore be a key concern moving forward, as will compliance to data privacy laws and rebuilding trust with clients.

President of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (NATAS), Steven Ler, said travel agents will need to help clients navigate the brave new world of tracking technology, and provide additional aid to elderly travellers who may be less tech-savvy.

Ongoing communication and engagement with clients will also prove crucial on the road to recovery.

In a post-Covid world, travel and tourism will play a role in rebuilding societies and economies — but so will blockchain technology.

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