In December 2020, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced that it is developing a new digital health credential solution built utilizing blockchain that has the potential to reopen international travel and replace compulsory quarantine measures. In an article in FTA where they interviewed Murray Hayden, Head Airport passenger and security products at IATA, the article noted that both UAE Emirates Airlines and Etihad will be trialing the blockchain enabled solution. According to the statement in the article, "Emirates, Etihad, Singapore Airlines and British Airways are among the first airlines to trial the IATA Travel Pass. Etihad and Emirates announced trials starting in April." Prior to a full roll out, Emirates will implement phase 1 in Dubai for the validation of COVID-19 PCR tests before departure. In this initial phase, expected to begin in April 2021, Emirates customers travelling from Dubai will be able to share their COVID-19 test status directly with the airline even before reaching the airport through the app, which will then auto-populate the details on the check-in system. According to Etihad airlines travel pass is a priority for the airline.
For Etihad Airways, the IATA Travel Pass will initially be offered to guests on selected flights from Abu Dhabi in the first quarter of 2021. If successful, the pass will be extended to other destinations on the Etihad network.
Travel Pass is a mobile app that will enable travellers to store and manage verified information on their health status, COVID-19 tests and vaccines, in line with any government requirements for testing or vaccine information. The concept of health passports has been around for a while – think Yellow Fever card – but digitising it will lead to more security and efficiency than traditional paper-based processes. “If we look at the broader picture, what has really been driving this initiative is the way quarantine measures are heavily impacting the air transport industry,” Hayden tells FTE. “Earlier in the year we saw that when the Canary Islands lifted their quarantine, the load factors for airlines skyrocketed overnight. The solution to that is testing.”
There is, indeed, industry-wide consensus that testing is the right approach to the ever-changing quarantine measures. However, Hayden highlights that there are two main issues with testing – confidence and scalability. He explains: “When people do get tested, they turn up with a piece of paper and people don’t have confidence in that. And the second point is that agents still need to check these paper documents. And that’s what we are really trying to solve with this solution.”
IATA is developing the Travel Pass in four independent components, which can either work together as one complete end-to-end solution, or separately to compliment systems that others are building. It is essentially a tool for travellers but it communicates with governments, airlines, test centers and vaccination providers for verifications.
The solution is designed to be offered as part of the airline’s own mobile application, and the separate modules can either work together as one complete end-to-end solution, or separately to compliment systems that others are building. “Within the airline app, passengers will be able to create a digital version of their passport, which is important when it comes to linking COVID-19 test results to the traveller’s identity,” explains Hayden. “Once the passenger has a digital version of their passport on their phone, they’ll go to the laboratory and scan a QR code, which creates a link between the passport details and the laboratory, so that they can verify the person’s identity.”
“So, now passengers have three key things on their phone – their digital passports, test results and what we call an ‘okay to travel’. Passengers can then choose whether to share this data on the airline app. They will be prompted to submit their data and if they click on submit it will be sent to the airline. This is simple from a passenger perspective – literally with the click of a couple of buttons the airline now has all passenger’s details, and they’re 100% sure that the passenger is okay to fly.”
With the new app, IATA is also hoping to address some of the bottlenecks that could be created once passenger numbers bounce back again. “Replacing the paper documents with electronic version and using the verifiable credential will allow airlines to push all of this off airport, so passengers arrive completely documented,” explains Hayden.