In April, travelers at London’s Heathrow airport had to wait as long as six hours to be cleared to fly. The bottlenecks were a result of airline agents struggling to make sense of the various Covid-19 health clearances travelers were presenting. Imagine small cards, stamped documents, and digital apps in various languages and formats. The lack of standardization was a killer.
As international travel ramps up in parts of the world, Amadeus, a reservation system used by 474 airlines, has adopted IBM’s digital health passport solution called IBM Digital Health Pass. Instead of presenting paper-based certifications, travelers need only scan a QR code sent by email at the gate. Travelers without smart phones can print a QR code. The backend technology authenticates credentials against requirements of each country—relieving from agents an onerous burden, given how frequently countries change travel restrictions as the pandemic evolves.
Six airlines are using the system so far: Air Europa, Air Corsica, French Bee, Air Caraibes, Air Canada, and Norwegian Air Shuttle. Starting today, other airlines using Amadeus can activate it in their systems. “This avoids cumbersome and time-consuming checks while traveling, and adds further reassurance to airlines and their passengers,” explained Christian Warneck, who oversees travel safety at the Madrid-based Amadeus.
Simplifying traveler credentials is especially crucial for international travel. Border agents faced a similar problem after World War I when European borders opened to tourists. The great diversity in passports from various nations produced delays in train station to such extremes it was considered a threat to “the economic recovery of the world.” In 1920, 42 members of the League of Nations decided on the standard layout of passports that we still follow for the most part today.
Beyond the Amadeus-IBM partnership, several airlines have been testing other digital health passports. For instance, JetBlue, Lufthansa, Swiss International Airlines, United Airlines, and Virgin Atlantic are using CommonPass, developed by the World Economic Forum and the Commons Project Foundation, on certain routes.
Concerns about privacy and accessibility
Data privacy is a major issue in creating universally-accepted IDs. For instance, the French are up in arms about president Emmanuel Macron’s plan to introduce a national health pass to enter restaurants, shopping centers, museums, and any indoor gathering places. In Macron’s plan, anyone who gets the Covid-19 vaccine will be entered in a central database which could be used to track individuals. The perceived government encroachment on individual freedoms is a reason some in France aren’t getting the vaccine.
IBM Digital Health Pass, in contrast, uses blockchain encryption technology, eliminating the need to collect and store personal data. This allows user to manage what information they want to share through their smartphones. All border agents see is a prompt for whether a traveler is cleared for travel or not.
A future without paper passports?
Greg Land, IBM’s travel and transportation expert, believes the growing adoption of app-based health passes will energize initiatives to digitize all travel credentials which may one day make passport booklets obsolete.
“Even before the pandemic, we were starting to see long lines at airports and other venues and it made us think that we just have to find a way to take that digital transformation to the next level,” Land explains. “It’s sad that it’s taken a pandemic to get progress in building these standards around digital credentials. But I think what we’re going through right now, especially with airlines and other travel companies, is helping us realize the benefit of moving to digital IDs like passports or driver’s licenses.”