Skift Take

Covid-free flights have officially landed, but businesses on the whole aren’t quite convinced.

Since the CommonPass digital health passport was trialled by a couple of airlines back in October, there’s been no let-up in other technology platforms jumping on board and dedicated flights for Covid-tested passengers.

Their ubiquity should be welcomed, but sometimes too much choice is a bad thing. Some players in business travel are less than excited about the prospect of digital health passes and the lack of harmony on requirements, a surprising turn for a sector that has been particularly hard hit by travel’s standstill.

The premise is simple. CommonPass, like other apps, provides a QR code that shows that you don’t have coronavirus. It’s also part of a framework that sets standards for lab results and vaccination records, allowing different countries to set their own health criteria for entry.

United Airlines and Cathay Pacific were the first to pilot the scheme, but at the end of November JetBlue, Lufthansa, Swiss International Airlines and Virgin Atlantic also joined what is now called the CommonTrust Network. Airport Council International, which represents 2,000 airports, signed up too.

The International Air Transport Association also launched its own Travel Pass on November 23. It has partnered with International Airlines Group, which will test the pass later this year, ahead of rolling it out in the first quarter of 2021.

Covid-Free Flights Are a Reality

One of the more recent schedules involves Rome’s Fiumicino airport running Covid-tested flights to and from the U.S., operated by Delta Air Lines and Alitalia.

Alitalia has selected the ICC AOKpass digital health passport. It’s the only technology solution recognized on the route, although paper certificates could be accepted.

This particular app was co-designed by the International Chamber of Commerce. It has business travel front of mind, and in the past it’s been used to reopen travel between destinations including Abu Dhabi and Pakistan, and helped road haulage companies cross borders in South America.

With so many initiatives in place, you’d think businesses would have had their confidence restored. Some do have faith. “If colleagues had a genuine need to travel and were happy to fly using any of these options, then we would support that,” said Pam Booth, group procurement manager at Impellam Group.

But this opinion isn’t widely shared.

One travel manager told Skift he would only consider a digital health passport if they became standard, and there wasn’t too much competition between the platforms. “The improvement of the health situation is still the key factor, but I do appreciate these initiatives because they eliminate the need for quarantines and redundant testing,” he said.

Another travel manager source said IATA’s Travel Pass had the best chance of being accepted by his company, if it ensured the tests and other criteria allowed staff to enter the country and waive any quarantine requirements. “But the current uncertainty of missing any local requirement or changes requirement is the roadblock, as you simply do not know what you don’t know,” he added. “Requirements change so quickly and are not harmonized, even within countries. How can you be sure you meet all requirements from countries, and suppliers, during the trip?”

A Double-Edged Sword

Health passport providers are in some ways like those pharmaceutical companies producing vaccines; the more efforts to find a solution, the greater the chances of success. It goes some way to explaining why organziations like the World Tourism Organization of the United Nations are willing to support and endorse different health passports, including CommonPass and ICC AOKPass.

But what’s stopping businesses from adopting these kinds of schemes wholesale is the fact there are several on the market.

“There are so many passports at the moment,” said Mark Cuschieri, European advisory board chair at the Global Business Travel Association. “There’s huge disparities around governments and airlines at the moment, doing their own thing. That creates problems. Unfortunately, a one size fits all just isn’t there, and that’s a short to medium-term reality.”

Cuschieri, himself a global head of travel at an investment bank, said his peers discuss how they want to bring back travel in a safe manner, and the only solution is a single end-to-end solution for the traveler.

“This is not attacking any airline, or company, setting (passports) up — they’re doing it for the right reasons. The concerns are because there it creates confusion. Which app do I need if I’m going on a certain airline, or going to a certain market, and does that government accept that verification process as well? That’s the challenge we’re hearing.”

Whose Data is it Anyway?

A further roadblock is data privacy. A survey carried out by advocacy organization Travel Again found 75 percent of business travelers would be willing to take multiple Covid tests before and during travel and share their results to resume traveling without restrictions. The same percentage applied to leisure travelers.

That survey was conducted in the U.S. between November 17-19. In total, 267 individuals responded, with an almost equal mix between business and leisure travelers.

“It’s a healthy number, sure, but from a business perspective, that number is kind of low. People have more privacy concerns” said Mike McCormick, co-founder of Travel Again.

However, he does think health passports will prove their value in the longer term. “Passports are essential, or will be essential, as part of a formula we will need to have,” he said. “Will they alone change behavior of the business traveler, or decisions made by the company? No. It’s got be part of a bigger plan that fits together.”

That bigger plan remains elusive for now, with recent “no vax, no fly” comments made by Alan Joyce, CEO of Qantas, unlikely to help.

But one advantage with health passport is their ability to display vaccine results as well as Covid test results. Once health workers, and other groups that are classified as a priority for vaccinations, are flying again will these passports be fully put to the test.


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Tags: alitalia, cathay pacific, commonpass, delta, gbta, iag, iata, jetblue airways, qantas, swiss, united airlines, virgin atlantic

Photo credit: The CommonPass app displays a QR code that shows airport authorities a negative Covid test result. CommonPass

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