As travel opens up, adopting a standardised approach to digital health credential checks is imperative to ensure seamless passenger processing, says Sherry Stein, head of technology, SITA Americas
The welcome if gradual return of global air travel is placing significant strains on our industry’s infrastructure, caused by an array of disparate new passenger health requirements, such as Covid-19 testing and vaccine certificates.
The need for passengers to provide these credentials in many and varied ways is in effect reducing the actual capacity of airports. IATA says that average passenger processing and waiting times have doubled from what they were pre-crisis during peak time.
This is placing immense pressure on travellers and the industry at large, creating a cocktail of congestion and confusion, not to mention frustration all round.
We need to integrate health requirements now: digitally, globally
As we open up, it’s imperative we integrate the multiple different ways of sharing health credentials digitally and seamlessly into a single approach for the world’s travel ecosystem. We must do it for every industry player, so that health checks become fast and frictionless.
This is a crucial digital shift. In making it, we can tackle the wait times at check-in, restoring self-service to save time, confusion and congestion. We can move the job of health checks from airlines to governments, where risk-assessment and border management decisions lie for all other travel processes. And, crucially, we can give travellers the assurance that wherever they venture in the world, they’ll be allowed into the country and to return home.
Collaborative, open approaches are critical to the recovery: SITA Health Protect
Of course, baking health credential checks into the world’s travel infrastructure demands that we work with all players. We must collaborate to make sure that the necessary digital solutions can be put into place quickly and cost-effectively, anywhere in the world, according to open architectures and industry standards.
Such a collaborative and open industry approach is the thinking behind SITA Health Protect, which allows health status checks as part of the travel process. Its easy adoption creates little disruption to existing industry processes, regardless of carrier or mode of travel.
During airline check-in, be it by mobile or kiosk, traditional advance passenger process checks can now add accompanying verification of health declaration status. Airlines can issue a boarding pass via self-service prior to travel, without having to visually assess a printed Covid-19 test result at the ticket counter.
Based on a holistic process, airlines and border agencies can make board/no-board decisions that reduce the risk of inadmissible travellers being denied entry on arrival or being subject to quarantine or additional testing.
The essential digital shift at the border: pre-empting future lockdowns
Let’s remember, our industry has often used health-related questions on customs and immigration declaration forms, to obtain a traveller’s self-reported disclosure for possible exposure for various infectious diseases – such as SARS, MERS and H1N1.
We believe that given the Covid pandemic, and the need to ensure the recovery of air travel, few would question today’s imperative of integrating health-related processes into the world’s travel industry, digitally.
That’s why the continued digital shift to transform border management processes is essential. Only by digitalising border operations can we accelerate our ability to coordinate and manage a global response to threats of new epidemics before reaching pandemic-level crisis and, ideally, pre-empt the need to lock down borders.
Paving the way for passengers
SITA’s work with airlines, airports and governments around the world is paving the way for passengers to return to air travel in a safe and healthy way.
The Australian government, for example, uses SITA border technology to enable travellers to supply digital contact and journey information, and complete an electronic health declaration in advance of travel, via their mobiles if they wish.
In future we hope to take this a step further. Aruba’s Happy Traveler Card, introduced in 2021, uses a self-sovereign identity solution that supports Sovrin Foundation principles. Travellers receive a verifiable digital trusted traveller health credential issued by the Aruba Health Ministry, providing access to services, restaurants and other amenities throughout the island.
A second phase of the trial now in planning will address the safe and secure exchange of credentials across the journey. It includes issuance of a digital test and vaccine credential from the Health Information Exchanges in the US and Canada, with rapid credential verification from Aruba prior to travel, in the form of a trusted travel credential (Happy Traveler Card) sent to the passenger’s mobile wallet.
Integration with SITA Health Protect will enable self-service check-in – be it by web, mobile or kiosk – while advance passenger processing will verify that passengers have a trusted traveller credential and are allowed to board.
Accelerating digital progress – with health at the forefront
This year, we have seen an increasing focus on collaborative initiatives to introduce digital health credentials, or health passports, to reduce fraud and incorporate digital identity solution principles. To this end, SITA continues to work with many airline, airport and government customers on live projects and proofs-of-concept around the world.
The pandemic has had a devastating impact on our industry. Yet it has also focused minds on accelerating digital progress, with health in border management and international travel at the forefront of our efforts.
This is vital today, as we recover, and as we strive to enhance traveller convenience and operational excellence. But it will also increase the resilience of our processes should we face another epidemic or global pandemic in the future.