Just when you thought things could not get any lower, a trend emerged with travellers forging covid-19 tests to board planes, potentially while infected. Really, it’s the stuff of nightmares. So how can airlines move forward with trustworthy results, rather than relying on check-in staff to validate often complex documents? It turns out, there is an app for that. Or rather, apps.
British Airways is set to become the latest airline to embrace VeriFLY, and perhaps also the IATA Travel Pass, which are designed to seamlessly enable travellers to understand destination restrictions, obtain access to any necessary tests or info required to travel and then securely verify test results, all in one place.
Qatar Airways, the majority stakeholder in the IAG Group which owns British Airways will also trial the IATA Travel Pass ‘Digital Passport’ App on upcoming flights. Etihad and Emirates also expressed a desire to trial the app from March.
So, how do the digital health passport apps work? You will open it up to find out exactly what’s needed to visit your destination, see a list of approved labs and accepted tests for the said destination, and then the lab will be able to upload and share the results directly in the app, giving you an easy ‘tick box’ with a QR code to prove to an airline you’re ready to fly.
It should all be touch free, allowing you to show your phone to a check-in agent, who will see the tick box, and clear you for check-in and boarding.
The apps should be a welcomed improvement on the current state of flux and uncertainty, adding far greater ease – but it also raises many questions, and more importantly privacy concerns.
So, which app will win? One of the biggest initial concerns with airlines using apps to vet and verify travel documents, aside from data concerns, is which app?
Already, there’s been confusion as to which app British Airways will embrace for international flights from mid-February. Will it be VeriFLY, like BA partner American Airlines, or IATA Travel Pass, which the airline lobbying group developed in tandem with IAG, the parent company of British Airways. For now, the answer appears to be VeriFLY, or perhaps both. A tandem trial may indeed be the answer.
But if airlines can’t agree, or end up the slit, will it only make travel more of a headache, rather than the simplistic solution these apps are supposed to bring?
Furthermore, if an airline group has a vested financial interest in the very app which vets and tracks vaccination and testing records, it could all get far more dubious. On the FAQ page for the current IATA Travel Pass, the company offers the following on privacy…
Q. How will IATA ensure the integrity of personal data?
Travellers always remain in control of their data with their privacy protected. The IATA Travel Pass does not store any data centrally. It simply links entities that need verification (airlines and governments) with the test or vaccination data when travellers permit. This last point is key. No verification will go to an airline or a government without the authorization of the traveller.
At the moment, there’s a competition between IAG and IATA with IATA Travel Pass and the World Economic Forum in partnership with other tech ventures for Common Pass.
If the former wins, will IATA, or IAG Group eventually gain additional data about passenger behaviour or far worse, health and vaccination records of passengers? It is only one change of the app’s terms of service away, just like every other app update with 1,000,000 lines of legal agreement you scroll past.
The question is: will this remain truly anonymous but 100% verifiable, as suggested?
The idea is a digital passport that protected biometric data and personal info and travellers could choose when to share, such as with authorities at a border crossing, but not at any other time. There would be a data trail (thanks to Blockchain) whenever information was accessed.
The thought of airlines, or airline groups being able to leverage this rich health data into financial success is alarming, though they’d undoubtedly welcome the financial boost. If they’re indeed simply launching the app as a solution to ease governmental fears over travel eligibility and get routes back, that’s another proposition entirely.
The thought of a digital health passport with data that remains secured and not eligible to be mined for profit in perpetuity, but rather just used as a travel verification tool is far less concerning, and one which really could open borders quickly.
For now, travellers will continue navigating the minefield of travel restrictions, testing requirements and daily unknowns with a brave face on. But by mid-February or early March, these travel vetting apps should simplify the process dramatically, and create an efficient way to travel internationally once again.
Edited by Joe Cusmano