SEOUL – For passengers longing for the return of globetrotting, a ray of hope took flight this week: the international airline industry initiated the trial of a travel pass designed for the pandemic era.

On Monday, a two-week pilot trial of the International Air Transport Association’s digital Travel Pass started on Singapore Airlines’ Singapore-London route. The initiative is overdue, for perhaps no global sector has been as hard hit by Covid-19 as air travel.

Last year, international passenger demand was 75.6% below 2019 levels. Asia-Pacific airlines full-year traffic plunged 80.3% in 2020 compared with 2019, the deepest decline for any region. 

And the near-term outlook is bleak. IATA does not anticipate a return to pre-pandemic capacities for years.

“We don’t see passenger demand recovering to 2019 levels until 2024 at the earliest,” IATA’s regional vice president for Asia Pacific Conrad Clifford told Asia Times.

He offered a potentially dire forecast for the hospitality and conference sector, which has suffered massive losses as business travel has been replaced by online conferencing.

“We believe international leisure travel will return faster than business travel once borders are re-opened, as companies tighten their spending,” Clifford said.

IATA’s digital Travel Pass offers the potential of getting international air travel back on its feet – hence the results of its trial will be eagerly awaited in the boardrooms of desperate airlines across the world.

But even if fully successful, the pass still awaits the approval of national capitals. Given the lifeblood airlines are shedding, IATA hopes governments recognize the urgency of the situation and leverage the pass to re-open borders.

Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok is almost deserted on August 1, 2020, as passenger numbers plummet due to Covid-19. Photo: Mladen Antonov/AFP

Crashing and burning

​Founded in 1945, IATA represents 290 airlines in 120 countries, carrying 82% of the world’s air traffic, both passenger and cargo.

In 2020, the industry suffered its worst decline since World War II, which ended in 1945 – the year IATA was founded. IATA’s semi-annual report from November 2020 is an unprecedented scrawl of red ink.

Airlines around the world typically pay US$111 billion per annum in tax revenues. In 2020, due to the pandemic, the sector required $173 billion in life support.

In terms of hardware, the global commercial air fleet in 2019 totaled 29,697 aircraft. In 2020, that number fell to 24,500 (albeit, many aircraft are mothballed).

There were 38.9 million scheduled flights in 2019; in 2020, there were 16.4 million – a 22.2% fall year on year. This year, IATA expects 22 million flights, a 35.3% increase over 2020, but still a long way off pre-pandemic levels.

As regards passenger capacity, the number of available seats dropped from 4.5 million in 2019 to 3.4 million in 2020 as planes were taken out of service. In 2020, the sector suffered financial losses of $118 billion. And 2021 is hardly looking brighter. 

“Our most recent analysis shows that the airline industry is expected to remain cash negative throughout this year, a worsening of what we had previously assessed that the industry will turn cash positive in Q4 2021,” Clifford said. “Estimates for the industry cash burn in 2021 have ballooned to the $75-$95 billion range.”

Vaccines and testing may enable global travel at 50% of 2019 levels in 2021, though significant gains will only come late in the year, IATA forecast.

In the face of this near-existential threat, the industry is promoting a self-rescue solution.

Virgin Airlines is just one of many airlines around the world that is facing an uncertain future due to the pandemic. Credit: Virgin Airlines.

IATA’s silver bullet?

The IATA Travel Pass is a digital solution that takes the form of an app. It is designed to assist governments, airlines, laboratories/health authorities and passengers.

With it, governments will have the means to verify the authenticity of tests and vaccinations and the identity of those presenting the certificates when they arrive in-country. Airlines will be able to provide accurate information to passengers on entry requirements, and verify that a passenger meets requirements for travel.

Laboratories or health authorities will be able to issue digital test and/or vaccination certificates to passengers. And travelers will have accurate information on entry requirements, where they can get tested or vaccinated, and the means to securely convey their health information to airlines and border authorities.

The 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.

Amid Covid-19, the pass can verify a passengers’ test and vaccination status. It can easily be presented to relevant officials and its digital format means it can sync with the computerized systems used by airlines and border control bodies. 

Clifford reassured travelers that their data security will not be breached. “Travelers remain in control of their data with their privacy protected,” he said.

While other airlines have trialed elements of the pass, Singapore Airlines is the first to trial the full, four-module package in a two-week pilot program that started on 15 March. The airline has contacted all passengers who are flying its Singapore-London route during that period, asking them to join the trial, an IATA official told Asia Times.

The trial will test the full app “in the live environment with actual passengers, from creating a digital version of their passport, inputting their flight details, receiving their verified test results and getting a confirmation that they meet the testing requirements stated by their destination,” Clifford said.

Qatar Airlines is expected to join the trial on March 18, the IATA official said.

The results of the trial and passengers’ feedback are expected within days. IATA is hopeful, given that – according to surveys carried out by the organization – some 80% of passengers are upbeat about adopting the pass.

But of course, there are hitches. While the industry has developed the platform, governments have not yet signed on.

Parked planes at Mumbai airport, where traffic has fallen dramatically due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: AFP

Fast airlines, slow governments

With a multiplicity of tests currently being used by health authorities worldwide; with vaccinations only having started in December; with the efficacy of the various vaccines not yet fully validated; and with some governments requiring quarantine even for those who have tested negative; there is, as yet, no global recognition for the pass.

“We are engaging governments to get them to accept the app but it is early days,” Clifford said. “At this point in time, many governments still have not decided to open their borders to international travel.”

So, there will be no immediate change.

“The travel pass alone is not the magic bullet for restarting travel if governments do not remove restrictions such as quarantine,” Clifford said. “Hence the priority is still for governments to establish a roadmap towards reopening borders and relaxing travel restrictions…and to share this roadmap with the industry so as to allow airlines to plan ahead and provide the necessary connectivity.”

If and when national governments reach that decision, the IATA pass stands ready as a standardized validation platform.

“We believe that when governments start to open their borders to international travel, they will require either Covid-19 tests or vaccination,” Clifford said, “When that happens, the IATA Travel Pass will be able to facilitate it operationally and automate the processing of passengers.”

Another problem is vaccination certificates. At present, certification is country-specific, and is usually in the form of paper, rather than digital, documentation.

“Globally we still need standards to securely record digital proof of a vaccination,” Clifford said. “This will facilitate equivalence, mutual recognition and acceptance of Covid-19 certifications when people travel around the world.”

Currently, the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the OECD are working on these standardizations, with IATA participating.

But the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly, and every vaccination administered anywhere, to anyone, increases scale.

“Each day without the standards means the challenge gets bigger,” Clifford fretted. “This process of developing these standards needs to be accelerated.”

A Malaysia Airlines hostess (R) checks the temperature of a Chinese passenger before she boards a flight to Beijing at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Photo: AFP/Nicolas Asfouri

Tests before vaccines

At a time when capitals around the world are mulling the issuance of vaccination passports, the IATA Travel Pass exists and – critically – incorporates testing as well as vaccine data.

“IATA is not pushing for vaccine passports nor is the IATA Travel Pass a vaccine passport,” Clifford said. “The Travel Pass is a tool to help manage travel health credentials, be it Covid-19 tests or vaccination.”

IATA urges governments to open borders before the global vaccination drive is complete.

While conceding that vaccines have a role to play in the recovery of international travel, Clifford said, “It is not an option to wait for vaccines to be widely available before reopening borders.”

A worldwide vaccine rollout could take another two years. In the meantime, “Testing is the immediate solution to reconnect the world,” Clifford said.

While the global airline sector is a force multiplier that supports airport operators, aircraft manufacturers and petrochemical firms, Clifford said governments are not getting behind it.

He noted that the industry enables people to visit family, pursue travel and business opportunities and delivers cargo – including crucial materials such as vaccines – across borders.

It also impacts the other key sub-sector in global transport.

“Seafarers are unable to return home when flights are not available,” Clifford pointed out.

“This crisis has been a reminder of the important role aviation plays in our lives and economy, something many may not realize until it is not available,” he said. “That’s why governments need to see aviation as a strategic economic enabler that needs to be supported.”