A slew of health passes have emerged, developed to hasten the resumption of travel. But will they be able to resolve thorny issues before the pandemic threat itself abates?
By Robert Silk May 3, 2021
They go by several names. Health passes. Digital health passports. Vaccine passports. Health credentials. “Green certificates.” The list goes on.
And since at least last fall, airlines in the U.S. and elsewhere have looked to digital health passes as a solution to reopen international travel as the Covid-19 pandemic lingers. And not only air carriers: Interests as diverse as the World Economic Forum, multinational technology companies, the EU and organizations representing the global travel industry are all stressing the importance of developing interoperable, open-source technology standards for health passes.
Such efforts are seen as an important component in building a regulatory framework for cross-border travel that has support from countries across the globe. The hope is that travelers could use the health pass of their choice to ease their journey, regardless of airline or destination.
But as the summer travel season approaches, hope that any sort of global framework will emerge soon is dimming, experts say.
“I would like to go to my vacation home in Italy this summer,” said Christopher Rodrigues, a U.K. resident who served as chairman of Visit Britain from 2007 to 2017 and is also a former CEO of Visa. “If I am told that the only way I am going to get there is if there is a global health pass system, I’m not going to get there this summer, and I don’t expect to go there next summer.”
Rodrigues expects international travel to recover via bilateral corridors between specific nations, such as the Australia-New Zealand corridor that recently opened.
It is a point agreed upon by Peter Gerstle, group head of travel products for the Collinson Group, which owns Priority Pass, the largest airport lounge network in the world.
“My biggest hope is that in 18 months’ time we’ll either have a solution for it or it won’t be an issue anymore,” he said of the interoperability of global health passes during a late-March webinar hosted by the Loyalty Security Association. “I think it is more likely to be the latter.”
‘My biggest hope is that in 18 months … health passes won’t be an issue.’—Christopher Rodrigues
Such a pessimistic outlook about the speed of developing interoperability among health pass providers isn’t shared by everyone.
IATA is sounding a more optimistic note.
“This will line up faster than you think it can,” said Nick Careen, IATA’s senior vice president of airport, passenger, cargo and security. The IATA Travel Pass is among the most prominent health pass solutions competing in the marketplace.
And although Paul Meyer, CEO of the Commons Project Foundation, the developer of the CommonPass, agreed that health pass solutions are not going to be aligned globally under a common standard in the near term, he also said that CommonPass is being designed to support multiple standards. As of mid-April, CommonPass was working directly with federal or state governments in eight countries as well as private interests in 24 more countries.
Nonetheless, health passes face challenges that go beyond the complexities of technical alignment.
In the U.S. and elsewhere, opposition has built against domestic uses of health passes for entry into busy venues such as concerts, sporting events, restaurants and gyms due to concerns about equity, civil liberties and the safety of Covid-19 vaccines.
Those concerns have spilled into the international travel arena. In early April, notably, the World Health Organization came out in opposition to requirements that individuals show proof of vaccination in order to travel.
But vaccine mandates are already in place or in the offing in some countries, including France, Iceland, Anguilla, the Seychelles and Israel, as a requirement for entry. And in late April, European tourism ministers stated at the World Travel & Tourism Council Global Summit in Cancun that there was agreement among EU countries to admit vaccinated visitors from certain countries with advanced vaccination programs. Although details were scarce, it put the question of verification firmly in the spotlight.
Airlines have been clear that they oppose vaccination requirements. Where entry restrictions exist, they say, individuals who aren’t vaccinated should be able to travel abroad by providing negative Covid-19 test results or by showing they’ve already had the virus. Carriers primarily view health passes as a way to facilitate travel during the pandemic and to speed movement through airports by alleviating the need for manual document inspections at check-in.
Photo Credit: Jeri Clausing
Dispatch: International travel’s current situation includes forms, forms, tests and more forms
Senior editor Jeri Clausing writes: “To anyone out there who wants to resume traveling the world but opposes so-called digital health passports, I challenge you to do a multicountry trip without changing your mind.”
“If it’s paper documents, the system just won’t work,” Perry Flint, an IATA spokesman, said. “You are going to have people backed up in airports around the world.”
Cruise companies, though, are approaching vaccination differently than airlines.
Several, including Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, Royal Caribbean Group and Crystal Cruises, have announced that they’ll require customers to be vaccinated in order to set sail, either on all routes or on some.
Such rules may face complications when these companies sail from U.S. ports. Florida, which has several homeports, is under an executive order signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in April banning vaccine passports.
Confusion over the cross-purposes of health passes could also prove to be a barrier to their quick rollout in the international travel sphere.
For the purposes of international air travel, said IATA’s Careen, the passes can’t take the place of true passports but are more like a digital version of the long-standing yellow international vaccination certificates, updated for Covid-19 travel requirements and less susceptible to fraud.
“We are just looking at a way to digitize a manual format,” he said.
Ultimately, decisions about whether vaccinations or testing are required for international travel will be made by host countries. The health pass will merely facilitate verification of compliance documents.
Still, health passports in the international travel realm are sometimes conflated with potential domestic uses, which are proving to be more controversial. For example, a plan unveiled by British prime minster Boris Johnson in early April to trial a national health pass system for people seeking to either travel or attend domestic events drew strong opposition from some politicians on both the left and right.
Josephine Johnston, director of research at the Hastings Center, a New York-based institute that analyzes ethical, legal and policy issues in medicine and science, said she sees real concerns about equity as it relates to requiring vaccines or negative Covid-19 tests for entry to businesses or public spaces within the domestic realm. In the U.S., people of color are getting vaccinated at a slower rate than white people.
But she doesn’t have the same set of concerns when it comes to requiring vaccination or testing proofs for international travel. Countries, she said, will and should make decisions about who they’ll allow to enter based upon public-health concerns.
“There are some people who can’t be vaccinated. There need to be exceptions. But international travel in many ways seems to be a privilege,” Johnston said.
The airlines believe that the health passes, in addition to facilitating a speedy journey through airports, will protect against vaccine and testing certificate fraud. Fake Covid-19 vaccination certificates and statements attesting to negative test results are already widely available for purchase on the internet, said Stuart Barwood, director of global airline strategy for the fraud prevention company Forter. Much of the problem, he added, is coming from paper vaccine certificates, which can easily be forged.
The phony documents undermine governments’ confidence in being able to safely open borders. Israel will begin a pilot program May 23 allowing selected tour groups from abroad to visit, but arriving visitors at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport will have to undergo an antibody test to prove they’ve been vaccinated.
Digital health passes have the potential to alleviate such concerns, especially if vaccination and testing documents are delivered directly to a user’s digital wallet on their phone from a verified, trusted source, such as a known healthcare provider or government entity.
Health pass developers also say that their solutions are secure for consumers. Some, such as the IATA Travel Pass and the IBM Digital Health Pass, use blockchain technology to decentralize data storage. Users of the IATA Travel Pass will have control of their own data, except when they pass it along in encrypted fashion to an airline or government for verification. CommonPass data is also stored only on a user’s phone, though a record that a person has been cleared for a specific journey is stored in the cloud so that it can be queried by an airline or border agency.
‘They are rushing out systems. It is inherently open to abuse.’—Stuart Barwood, Forter
Still, Barwood noted that any system can be misused. He is concerned that health pass solutions will be vulnerable due to the speed with which they are being developed.
“They are rushing out systems that they are not going to have time to put the security in. It is inherently open to abuse,” Barwood said.
Some passes have already been pushed into operation. In the U.S., Alaska Airlines and American are deploying the Verifly app developed by the technology company Daon, and United has incorporated a health pass into its own app. The state of Hawaii, meanwhile, has partnerships with the Clear Health App and CommonPass and has also sketched out plans to develop its own travel health pass.
In addition to Hawaii, CommonPass is working directly with six East African countries as well as Aruba. Airline partners include JetBlue, Lufthansa, Japan Airlines and All Nippon. IATA Travel Pass has run trials with up to two dozen airlines.
Those are a few examples among many. Dozens of private companies have developed health passes for travel or domestic uses, as have some countries, including China and Israel.
Meanwhile, in March the European Commission proposed the establishment of an EU-wide digital certificate to document Covid-19 vaccinations and test results in order to speed the reopening of cross-border traffic within Europe. With the EU initiative to admit vaccinated travelers now on the table, the union’s “green certificate” program could have an outsize role in shaping standards for pass developers in the U.S. and elsewhere.
The Biden administration, however, has said it won’t develop a health pass. Instead, the administration is assisting with private sector efforts.
Unless interoperabililty issues are resolved, the diffuse landscape threatens to make international travel a complicated mess, with flyers required to download multiple apps and solutions and carefully select which one to use on any give trip. That’s why entities as large as the European Commission have called for technological infrastructure to be set up at an international level to allow for the secure issuance of interoperable travel certificates.
Private initiatives are also working toward the goal of interoperability, including the Good Health Pass Collaborative, comprised of a cross-section of more than 100 companies in the travel, technology and healthcare sectors.
Ultimately, said Meyer of CommonPass, it’s not likely there will be one winning app or one global standard. But that doesn’t mean the landscape will be hopelessly complicated. The CommonPass model, he said, is to support multiple standards, so it can read and inspect credentials put forward by sources as divergent, for example, as China, Israel and, recently, France.
Nevertheless, complications for any sort of global alignment remain numerous and extend beyond technology standardization to the wide mix of policies being adopted by individual nations. Already, some countries have opened the door wide to tourism, while others remain largely locked down. Quarantine rules, testing requirements and requirements of proof of vaccination are also differentiators. And going forward, countries will have to decide which vaccinations to accept. Gary Leff of the View From the Wing blog asked during a recent Loyalty Security Association forum whether the U.S. would accept proof of AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccination even though that vaccine has not been approved for use stateside.
Questions of politics and policy, as much as anything, have some airlines conceding that travel corridors are the best hope for the near term. During Delta’s April earnings call, CEO Ed Bastian said the carrier is pushing for the reopening of U.S.-U.K. travel by early summer and expressed optimism it could happen. Conversely, Bastian was bearish on U.S.-Asia travel, expecting a broad easing of restrictions to be more than a year off, though he said Delta is hopeful U.S.-South Korea could open more quickly.
Rodrigues, the former Visit Britain and Visa head, noted that the global community has been able to develop worldwide interoperability in the past. It happened with credit card readers between the 1970s and the 1980s. But alignment took approximately a decade to achieve. He expects a long-term trajectory in this case, as well, with health status eventually tracked for travel on a global basis, but only well after the current pandemic has ended.
For now, said Rodrigues, bilateral travel corridors will be the solution.
TW illustration by Jenn Martins