Factbox: Health apps, vaccine certificates riding to rescue of air travel

·4-min read
FILE PHOTO: Federal police officers check flight passengers arriving from Britain at Frankfurt Airport

LONDON (Reuters) - Governments and airlines in Europe are hoping that vaccine certificates and digital health apps can help make travel for the masses a reality again this summer after a year of COVID-19 restrictions.

What options are being considered, how do they work and what are the concerns?

WHAT IS NEEDED AND WHY?

Currently there are multiple restrictions on travel, with differing rules for each country. Many countries require evidence of a recent COVID-19 negative test result. Complying with changing rules is tricky for passengers and airlines.

A digital health or travel app would aim to show passengers up-to-date requirements for their destination and display their COVID-19 test results and any vaccination certificate.

"These solutions will therefore be vital to reduce this complexity and make the customer journey smoother," said Luis Gallego, chief executive of British Airways owner IAG.

Airports say checking test results, passenger locator forms for contact tracing, and other documentation currently takes up to 20 minutes per traveller. A digital solution will speed up checks and enable airports to cope with recovering traffic volumes, they add.

WHAT OPTIONS ARE THERE?

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is working on its Travel Pass app, which will hold authenticated health certificates including proof of vaccination or test results.

British Airways, American Airlines and others are already trialling mobile health app VeriFLY on their flights.

CommonPass, developed by the World Economic Forum and Commons Project Foundation, is another platform allowing people to document their COVID-19 status.

HOW WILL THEY WORK?

IATA says the apps will enable authorised labs and test centres to send results or vaccination certificates securely to passengers. They can then choose to share those results with the airlines or authorities responsible for allowing their travel.

CommonPass says it lets individuals access their lab results and vaccination records and consent to have that information used to validate their COVID-19 status.

British Airways passengers opting to use VeriFLY are fast-tracked to dedicated desks to avoid being asked for documentation such as test results already uploaded via the app. The airline hopes eventually to add direct digital links to labs, and to connect the app to its online check-in service.

"That would be a really big benefit that our customers are keen to see," said Richard Treeves, the carrier's head of business resilience.

WHEN ARE THEY AVAILABLE?

IATA said its Travel Pass will launch at the end of March, with trials beginning in the next few weeks on London-Singapore flights, in partnership with Singapore Airlines.

VeriFLY is already up and running for BA, which expanded its trial in mid-February to include all UK-bound flights. The app's developers plan to add support for vaccination documents if and when they become a requirement.

But Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary warned on Wednesday that any government-issued vaccine passport was unlikely to be ready for the peak holiday season.

WHAT ARE THE CONCERNS?

Many governments and authorities have warned that any digital health pass should not disadvantage those yet to be offered the vaccine. Privacy International, a charity focused on technology and rights, said some communities such as migrants could be discriminated against.

The apps have also raised concerns among privacy campaigners and over potential identity theft, hacking and fraud.

Privacy International cited "concern that international data sharing of health data will become the norm beyond the purpose of international travel and public-health management".

IATA said its app was based on decentralised technology with no database that confines sensitive information to the user's phone. VeriFLY also stores critical information on a person's device and says it can be easily purged after travel.

WHAT ABOUT GOVERNMENTS?

Britain has said it is working with other countries to adopt a clear international framework with standards to provide consistency for passengers and the aviation industry.

Later this month, the European Commission will propose an EU-wide digital "green pass" to serve as proof of COVID-19 vaccination or test results, potentially allowing Europeans to travel more freely over the summer.

Governments will need to accept the digital credentials as proof of test results and vaccination, global airline body IATA says.

"All of this involves government getting comfortable with the process and the technology and, in some cases, integrating it within existing government systems," said Heathrow Chief Executive John Holland-Kaye.

In Britain, those who have been vaccinated currently receive a slip of paper, but IATA's Nick Careen says it shouldn't be "overly burdensome" for the National Health Service to share its digital vaccine records with a passenger app.

(Reporting by Sarah Young in London and Laurence Frost in Paris; Editing by Pravin Char)