Will Digital Passports Offer Hope for Business Travel’s Immediate Revival?

1 Apr 2021

Ever since the October trial run of the CommonPass digital health passport, so many tech companies, airlines, airports, NGOs, and other related organizations have jumped on the bandwagon offering and endorsing them to the public. In fact, well-known airlines such as Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa, United Airlines, JetBlue, and Virgin Atlantic have joined the CommonTrust Network, which links all the CommonPasses together.
How does it work? Simple. CommonPass, for example, proffers a QR code showing that you are free of COVID-19. This is just a small part of the framework that establishes standards for vaccination records and lab results. In turn, this allows countries to set their own varying health requirements for entry.
Other digital health passports have popped up as well, such as the ICC AOKPass and the International Air Transport Association’s Travel Pass (which will roll out within the first few months of 2021). Nevertheless, paper certificates may still be accepted by some airlines and airports.

With so many choices, it would only seem natural that the business travel sector, which was severely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting lockdowns around the world, would be excited over these new developments.

However, it seems that being spoiled for choice in digital health passports is having the opposite effect on industry players. Some cite the lack of harmony on requirements as a factor. And finally, as with anything digital, there is the issue of data privacy.

Competition creates confusion

The more efforts to find a solution, the greater the chances of success. This is why the World Tourism Organization of the United Nations was willing to throw its weight behind different health passports, thus making the market boom.

But this turned out to have some drawbacks.

Mark Cuschieri, European advisory board chair at the Global Business Travel Association, said, “There are so many passports at the moment. There’s huge disparities around governments and airlines at the moment, doing their own thing. That creates problems. Unfortunately, a one size fits all just isn’t there, and that’s a short to medium-term reality.”
Cuschieri, who is also a global head of travel at an investment bank, said that discussions with colleagues have led to one conclusion: the only solution to the issue is a single end-to-end solution for the traveler.
“This is not attacking any airline, or company, setting (passports) up — they’re doing it for the right reasons. The concerns are because there it creates confusion. Which app do I need if I’m going on a certain airline, or going to a certain market, and does that government accept that verification process as well? That’s the challenge we’re hearing.” Cuschieri said.

Too many different requirements, too little time

Pam Booth, group procurement manager at Impellam Group, said, “If colleagues had a genuine need to travel and were happy to fly using any of these options, then we would support that.”
But this is one of the more positive and open-minded opinions. And it is not quite a common one within the industry.
Some travel managers will only consider a digital health passport if they’re standardized and if the competition between different platforms is toned down.
“The improvement of the health situation is still the key factor, but I do appreciate these initiatives because they eliminate the need for quarantines and redundant testing,” said a travel manager who wished to remain anonymous.
Another travel manager stated, “The current uncertainty of missing any local requirement or changes requirement is the roadblock, as you simply do not know what you don’t know. Requirements change so quickly and are not harmonized, even within countries. How can you be sure you meet all requirements from countries, and suppliers, during the trip?”

The data is in the details

Advocacy organization Travel Again surveyed 267 individuals in the US between November 17 to 19. They found that 75 percent of business travelers are willing to get tested for COVID-19 multiple times before and during travel, as well as share the results to continue traveling without restrictions. Polling leisure travelers yielded the same results.
“It’s a healthy number, sure, but from a business perspective, that number is kind of low. People have more privacy concerns” said Mike McCormick, co-founder of Travel Again.
McCormick believes that it is too early for health passports to prove their value. They will have to have been in use for a longer period for anyone to evaluate them.
“Passports are essential, or will be essential, as part of a formula we will need to have,” he said. “Will they alone change behavior of the business traveler, or decisions made by the company? No. It’s got be part of a bigger plan that fits together.”
For now, the shape of that bigger plan is inconclusive. But one thing is certain: health passports are able to display vaccine results and COVID-19 test results. It is only when first priority groups for vaccinations, such as health workers, can fly again that the health passports will truly have their trial by fire.