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As countries in Europe prepare to open their borders to vaccinated Americans this summer, airlines are seeing a spike in demand for travel. But the industry's focus needs to be on having sufficient manpower to verify proof of vaccinations prior to boarding.

Airlines are gearing up for a potentially hot and profitable summer of transatlantic travel as more Americans and Europeans become fully vaccinated and are making their travel plans after being cooped up for over a year.

Following the news that Americans may be welcome in Europe if they’re vaccinated, searches for flights to Europe increased by 19 percent at Chicago-based United Airlines, an airline spokesperson said.

United is planning to resume direct flights from its bases in Newark, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. to Rome, Athens, Amsterdam, Reykjavik and a few other European cities between May and July, the United spokesperson said

There is strong demand for markets open to U.S. travelers, and the Atlanta-based carrier Delta is resuming service to Iceland this weekend and Athens next month, a spokesperson said.

Across the Atlantic, Virgin Atlantic is seeing customers book overseas trips starting in the second quarter, but the airline notes that with the uncertainty of restrictions that can change. “We are seeing demand for families traveling to the theme parks in Orlando in the summer and we have some great offers for early bird bookings for resorts, including Walt Disney World Orlando,” said Virgin Atlantic spokesperson Anna Cathpole. As an alternative to European vacations, Virgin Atlantic also is seeing an increase in bookings to Barbados and Israel, Cathpole added.

Confidence in travel seems to be returning. But the catch — at least for the European opening — is that Americans traveling to their borders must be vaccinated. And that can be a problem for people who are unable to be vaccinated for health reasons or because they choose not to get vaccinated, said Perry Flint, a spokesperson for the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

“The freedom to travel must not be restricted to only those who have access to vaccinations. Vaccines are not the only way to safely re-open borders. Government risk-models should also include Covid-19 testing,” said Willie Walsh, the new director general of IATA.

While not every airline is participating in IATA’s Travel Pass, all the airlines Skift spoke to have ways for airlines to upload the required pandemic-related information, either on the airline app or through partnerships with other health-travel passports. One such example is VeriFly, which verifies passengers’ identity and Covid-19 test results, among other capabilities.

Sample photo of passenger information uploaded to VeriFly travel passport.

Sample photo of passenger information uploaded to VeriFly travel passport. Photo courtesy of British Airways

“Equally critical will be clear, simple and secure digital processes for vaccination certificates. The IATA Travel Pass can help industry governments manage and verify vaccination status, as it does with testing certificates,” Walsh said. “But we are still awaiting the development of globally recognized standards for digital vaccine certificates.”

The problem with paper vaccine certificates is they are impossible to upload into the IATA Travel Pass unless they are digitized or have a QR code, said IATA’s Flint. That can potentially result in a problem for airlines as more European countries open, because passengers will have to provide vaccination proof in person and won’t be able to check-in online, he said.

“If you have to show that certificate in person — physically — that’s going to create problems at your departure airport because it’s you and everyone else who’s going to that country with one of those certificates,” said IATA’s Flint. “And when you get to the other side, you have to repeat the process by showing it to border control agent. That’s really not going to be a fun experience.”

Flint acknowledges IATA continues working with governments to find a solution to make the return of international travel smoother and safer.

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Photo Credit: Virgin Atlantic Boeing 787 Dreamliner flying transatlantically over water on the approach to land. Bill Abbott / WikiMedia

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