As a growing number of countries make progress with their vaccination procedures against the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, it is already clear that some countries — and indeed some airlines — will require proof of vaccination for travel. Proof of testing is increasingly becoming standard, although the actual standards of testing required are varied: PCR, other molecular, antigen, antibody, and so on.
Airline trade association IATA is working on a secure mobile phone based solution that interfaces between passengers, their passport plus health data, labs, and airlines. Runway Girl Network sat down with IATA’s head of airport, passenger and security products Alan Murray Hayden on a video call to learn more.
There are two principal drivers behind the move to a system for health data verification, Murray Hayden explains.
Counterfeit tests have been an identified problem for months now, and addressing that through a form of verification is one key reason that a system like this is required.
But it’s also that the sheer volume of test checks is already becoming unfeasible to carry out at checkin. “I was speaking to one major airline and at their hub airport they’re carrying about five to ten percent of normal passenger volumes, but the amount of checkin staff they have, is the same as the busiest day in the summer,” Murray Hayden says.
As any passenger who has ever been questioned by airline staff about whether their connection on a separate airline is adequate for proof of onward travel will know, doing this sort of thing at checkin takes time even at a hub airport with airline-employed staff, and can be a real faff at outstations with contracted ground handlers.
So a system to verify passengers’ tests prior to their arrival at the airport has clear advantages. And, with the convergence of several key pieces of technology — biometric passports, mobile phone cameras, mobile phone NFC readers, and secure mobile phone data storage — IATA has a proposal based on standards from UN body ICAO that it’s trialling with several airlines.
The trial features a separate IATA Travel Pass app, although the association expects to integrate much of the functionality in the airline app via a software development kit.
First, the passenger creates a digital passport (or other form of travel ID), starting with downloading and creating an account on the IATA Travel Pass app. (This may, later, be integrated into airline apps.)
Next, they take a selfie and do “liveness tests” like moving their head, looking up and down, to ensure they’re not taking a selfie of a photo, much as some banking applications do.
They then scan the data on the bottom two lines of the passport photo page, and scan the NFC chip using their phone to access both the electronic data and the electronic photo to confirm their identity. The digital passport is then created and stored.
In the example of a verified lab test, the lab will use a separate app to verify the passenger’s ID, and connect it to their own system, communicating the details of the test to the passenger’s Travel Pass app on their own phone.
IATA then uses its Timatic immigration rules database to check that the passenger meets the specific requirements, issuing an “OK to Travel” status to the phone, which the passenger can then share directly with the airline.
There are, of course, obvious equity reasons around digital access for lower-income travellers, and indeed for disabled passengers unable to use their phones in the way that the app requires. It seems clear that some airport-based process for these passengers — and for irregularities — will be required.
Independent testing and verification of the data of some of passengers’ most sensitive personal details and medical information will also be needed. But this Travel Pass is a good first step towards developing a future pre-departure verification capability.
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Featured image credited to IATA