Much aviation news in recent days has focused on the IATA Travel Pass, and a successful trial test conducted by Singapore Airlines.

But what does this really tell us? Is IATA’s Travel Pass the panacea that will see the industry rebound and international border restrictions broken down?  Are we there yet? Let’s dive in and find out.

What is IATA and the IATA Travel Pass initiative?

IATA (International Air Transport Association) is the governing body of the air transport industry and represents some 290 airlines comprising 82% of global air traffic. IATA’s stated mission is to represent, lead and serve the airline industry.  

The airline industry suffered its worst year since World War II, no more acutely felt than in Asia-Pacific where the regions full-year traffic plunged 80.3% in 2020 compared to 2019. Now, the airlines are looking to IATA for representation and leadership as they emerge from a turbulent 12 months.    

The much-needed leadership from IATA is coming with their Travel Pass Initiative.  

The Travel pass is a digital platform for passengers to inform them what tests are needed, what vaccines or other measures may be needed to travel, and provides the ability to store and share test and vaccination information in a safe, secure and verifiable manner.  

The objective of the Travel Pass is to provide Governments a greater level of confidence that should equate to a removal of quarantine barriers and a re-opening of international travel.      

IATA has positioned the Travel Pass to be a “global and standardized solution to validate and authenticate all country regulations regarding COVID-19 passenger travel requirements.”  

It is aimed to help provide information flows between Governments, airlines, laboratories and travelers. It has also built the Travel pass using software that will enable airlines to eventually integrate it into their own applications.  

"The objective of the Travel Pass is to provide Governments a greater level of confidence that should equate to a removal of quarantine barriers, and a re-opening of international travel."

The IATA Travel Pass combines four modules for an “end-to-end solution.” The modules are: A global registry of health requirements; a global registry of testing/vaccination centers; a lab app to securely share test and vaccination certificates with passengers; and a contactless travel app that enables passengers to create a digital passport and manage their travel documentation digitally.

Getting to this current juncture is no easy task. IATA acknowledge ongoing challenges faced by airlines and the traveling public in the current environment, including complex testing requirements and a lack of clear, concise information that is relevant and up-to-date.    

Which Airlines are Using the Travel Pass?

After months of preparation, IATA announced to much fanfare, that the first traveler using the IATA Travel Pass app to manage their health information, arrived on a Singapore Airlines flight from Singapore to London on 17 March.  

Passengers on Singapore Airlines flights from Singapore to London during the trial period of 15 March – 28 March can use the IATA Travel Pass to:

  1. Create a secure digital version of their passport on their mobile device.
  1. Input their flight details to learn of travel restrictions and requirements.
  1. Receive verified test results and a confirmation that they meet all travel requirements.

“The successful implementation of IATA Travel Pass in this trial with Singapore Airlines passengers demonstrates that technology can securely, conveniently and efficiently help travellers and governments to manage travel health credentials. The significance of this to re-starting international aviation cannot be overstated,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO.

JoAnn Tan, Acting Senior Vice President, Marketing Planning, Singapore Airlines, said: “Digital health credentials will be essential as borders reopen and travel restrictions get progressively lifted worldwide. The successful implementation of the IATA Travel Pass reflects Singapore Airlines’ goal of using secure digital solutions to verify health credentials, and support a safe and seamless travel experience for our customers.”

“The successful implementation of IATA Travel Pass in this trial with Singapore Airlines passengers demonstrates that technology can securely, conveniently and efficiently help travellers and governments to manage travel health credentials. The significance of this to re-starting international aviation cannot be overstated,”

Singapore Airlines were the first airline to trial the four-module Travel Pass package in a live environment, and now more airlines in Asia-Pacific are also undertaking their own trials.  

Thai Airways, All Nippon Airways, Emirates, Etihad and Gulf Air are working with IATA on Travel Pass trials. Qatar Airways have also announced plans to trial the Travel Pass, which will occur on their Doha to Istanbul service.  

Korean Air has an internal test set for April and then planned trial on the airline’s Incheon-Los Angeles KE011 flight in May.  

Qantas CEO, Alan Joyce, in a recent interview with the BBC said “governments are going to insist” on vaccines and he believes Qantas should enforce a policy of vaccination a condition of entry.  

However, his Group Chief Commercial Officer Stephanie Tully took a more measured approach, telling the TTG Asia publication that a digital health pass would assist airlines and governments globally to facilitate safe international travel when borders reopen.

“We want to get our international flights back in the air and our people back to work and a digital health pass will be a key part of that,” she said.  

What are the Major Challenges?

And it seems there is a willingness to accept a Travel Pass, or global standard, as the new normal, so people can take to the skies again.

A recent IATA poll of travelers found that 89% agree with the need for global standards and 80% are keen to use a mobile app to manage their travel credentials.

However, one of the challenges that remain for IATA, and the aviation industry as a collective, is a lack of global standardization on how to manage tests, vaccines to ensure a return to safe, international travel.

Many borders remain closed as Governments seek to protect their populations, but there remains a disconnect at the highest levels which is preventing a concerted approach to reach a global standard for acceptance of COVID-19 certifications.    

With a successful trial now underway, and critical data being gathered to support this process, the next stage for IATA is to continue to lobby and engage Governments for full adoption of these measures.    

“Given the variations [of COVID-19 test results and vaccine certificates] out there and the way it’s being dealt with [using] a piece of paper, it’s difficult. It’s very difficult to ask any normal check-in agent in an airline environment to validate what’s real and what isn’t. We simply don’t have that capability, and we do our best to train them as much as possible [about] things to look for, but it is wrought with risk.”

As has been the case now in Asia for almost 12 months, there remains a disconnect at the Government level as to what approach is best to reignite travel.    

If we look at ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations), there is a divide amongst the member states with most opting for hard borders.  

  • Indonesia has closed all borders to foreign visitors with few exceptions but has started to discuss travel corridors for Bali from mid-2021.  
  • In Laos, all international scheduled and charter flights are suspended until further notice.
  • In Malaysia, tourists are not allowed to enter the country and a 10-day quarantine is required for all arrivals of Malaysian nations and other permit holders.    
  • A recent spike in the Philippines has seen all international arrives restricted to only Filipino nationals until 19 April and domestic flights not due to reopen until 01 June.      
  • Meanwhile, Singapore continues to explore “fast lanes” allows a handful of countries ‘quarantine-free’ access.    
  • Thailand has been creative with allowing a range of non-Thai travelers to enter the country, but still mandates 14 days’ quarantine. This is due to be reduced to 10 days in April, then 7 days by July until a targeted, final lifting by 01 October for vaccinated travelers, providing they have evidence of their vaccinations.  Any form of quarantine remains a significant deterrent in a country heavily dependent on tourism.    

These challenges, within a tight-knit block such as ASEAN, represent the larger challenges faced by IATA to seek a consensus and global standard.    

A further challenge for governments, is to ensure they are able to verify vaccine records and authenticity of the tests and results.

Until now, most government vaccination certificates are country-specific and not in a digital format. Concerns around cybersecurity and data privacy also vary by country.    

Nick Careen, a senior vice president at IATA, recently spoke to ‘The Points Guy’ and when asked how IATA’s Travel pass identify or filter out fake COVID-19 results of vaccine certificates, Careen said “Given the variations [of COVID-19 test results and vaccine certificates] out there and the way it’s being dealt with [using] a piece of paper, it’s difficult. It’s very difficult to ask any normal check-in agent in an airline environment to validate what’s real and what isn’t. We simply don’t have that capability, and we do our best to train them as much as possible [about] things to look for, but it is wrought with risk.”

With all that we know, and with Singapore Airlines IATA Travel Pass trial period completed on 28 March, what have we learnt about the chances of a return to travel?    

A small sample size from one airline is not enough to light the runway ahead, but IATA remains vocal that to gain maximum benefit from IATA Travel Pass and to avoid confusion and inconvenience for passengers, the standardization of test or vaccination certifications, and their acceptance by authorities is key.  

It seems the industry remains at the mercy of Governments and with work to do on a global standard and filtering out potential fraud, however it does seem as though the industry is making headway, albeit into a strong headwind.