Transport Trade Group Brings Airlines And Vaccine IDs Into The Digital Age

At some point, though it may seem to be far away, air travel is going to resume. It may take a while. But businesspeople will want face to face meetings instead of Zoom. Parents will want to visit theme parks. Grandparents will want to visit grandchildren. And when it does return, so will long lines for international flights, shuffling paper, juggling passports and probably vaccination records.

And in an interview with PYMNTS, Nick Careen, senior vice president of airport, passenger, cargo and  security at the International Air Transport Association (IATA), said the stage is set for digital solutions to help validate and authenticate passengers, and also serve as a validation of a COVID-related test and travel requirements.

The conversation took place against the backdrop where IATA said earlier this month that it would debut a digital travel pass this quarter that allows users to store digital documents (including passports) that now include verified COVID-19 test results on mobile devices.

In terms of the mechanics, announced toward the end of last year, travelers download the IATA Travel pass to their mobile devices, take selfies that help satisfy a “liveness” test and scan data tied to documents such as passports with their devices.

“The IATA Travel Pass then matches the photo with the passport data (which contains a digital biometric photo of the passport holder) to verify that 1) the passport belongs to the person in front of the phone and 2) that the passport is genuine and has not been tampered with,” IATA said in its announcement. The association has said that the pass and app can help foster a travel experience that is contactless from end to end, from check-in and beyond. Emirates Air and Etihad Airways have already signed on with IATA.

As Careen explained, “the Travel Pass is pretty simple — and it’s intentionally designed to be that way.” He explained that the Travel Pass is based on existing technology (both hardware and software).

Once it is available for download by the end of February or early March, he said, the app will alert a user that, when it is time for travel, he or she, if required, will have to show proof of COVID test results or vaccination.

“You would share that information on your travel journey, whether with the airline or with the government,” he told PYMNTS.  He noted that governments have been “very cooperative in identifying what they believe they will require,” in terms of documentation, though nothing has been mandated. Yet, he noted, the digitization and documentation effort has had a long runway, stretching back to before COVID-19. Digital identification, he said, is a concept that has been gaining traction for years, and so has the use of biometric data in the service of establishing those identities.

“We pivoted in the early part of the pandemic around the June/July timeframe, to explore what [those] potential scenarios may look like post-pandemic when travel begins to resume again,” said Careen.

No surprise: The discussion over data privacy is a constant one, he noted, and privacy is built into the app itself. There is no data stored on the app itself (and no central repository of personal data). The only data that exists is in the hands of the consumer, on their phones.  “They choose who and when to share that data,” he said.

The Modules 

The Travel Pass has been designed as four independent modules, said Careen, tied to registries for various countries’ entry requirements, testing centers and official certificates detailing test results. The modules can interact with one another or can be used separately depending on the needs of various IATA member airlines, said Careen.

“The reason this has been done in a modular way,” he explained, “is because not every airline is created equally. Some airlines will want all of it, and some airlines may only want a piece of it. So building [Travel Pass] in a modular fashion allows them to be able to pick and choose what parts they would require to implement into their passenger processes.” Modules and registries will be updated constantly, he said.

Looking Ahead 

Looking ahead, he said, digital IDs will move toward replacing paper passports, and making the passenger process less cumbersome. Initially, he said, travel may resume in a fragmented way, due in part to the risk tolerance of individual countries and vaccination status within vulnerable communities.

“In the long run even if the requirement to illustrate your vaccination and your testing goes away, the key to this particular product is the fact that it does match your identity with your passport,” he added, with the phone as a connecting point.

“Any opportunity to be able to drive efficiencies and also deliver a better experience for our customers is something that we were going to have a huge desire to implement,” he told PYMNTS.