Governments need digital systems to avoid airport chaos from COVID-19: IATA

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Potentially severe airport chaos will happen unless governments move quickly to adopt digital processes to manage travel health credentials (COVID-19 testing and vaccine certificates) and other COVID-19 measures, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has warned.

Pre-COVID-19, passengers, on average, spending about 1.5 hours in travel processes for every journey, the organisation suggested. The time included check-in, security, border control, customs, and baggage claim.

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During peak times travel volumes currently sits at about 30 percent of pre-COVID-19 levels, but current data indicates that airport processing times have ballooned to 3.0 hours, IATA said. The greatest increases are at check-in and border control (emigration and immigration) where travel health credentials are being checked mainly as paper documents.

Modelling suggests that, without process improvements, the time spent in airport processes could reach 5.5 hours per trip at 75 percent pre-COVID-19 traffic levels, and 8.0 hours per trip at 100 percent pre-COVID-19 traffic levels, the aviation body claimed.

IATA’s Director-General Willie Walsh said that without an automated solution for COVID-19 checks, the potential for significant airport disruptions are on the horizon.

“Already, average passenger processing and waiting times have doubled from what they were pre-crisis during peak time—reaching an unacceptable three hours. And that is with many airports deploying pre-crisis level staffing for a small fraction of pre-crisis volumes,” he said.

“Nobody will tolerate waiting hours at check-in or for border formalities. We must automate the checking of vaccine and test certificates before traffic ramps-up,” he suggested, adding that technical solutions exist to do this.

“Governments must agree digital certificate standards and align processes to accept them. And they must act fast,” Walsh emphasized.

Over the past two decades air travel has been reinvented to put passengers in control of their journeys through self-service processes. This enables travelers to arrive at the airport essentially ready to fly.

With digital identity technology, border control processes are increasingly self-service using e-gates. Paper-based COVID-19 document checks will force travelers back to manual check-in and border control processes that are already struggling.

A security woman checks the temperature of a woman at Riyadh International Airport, after Saudi Arabia reopened domestic flights, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 31, 2020. (File photo: Reuters)
A security woman checks the temperature of a woman at Riyadh International Airport, after Saudi Arabia reopened domestic flights, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 31, 2020. (File photo: Reuters)

If Governments require COVID-19 health credentials for travel, integrating them into already automated processes is the solution for a smooth restart, IATA recommended. This would need globally recognized, standardized, and interoperable digital certificates for COVID-19 testing and vaccine certificates.

Digitalized certificates have several advantages including: avoiding fraudulent documentation; enabling advance ready-to-fly checks by governments; reducing queuing, crowding and waiting time in airports through integration with self-service check-in, such as over the internet, and reducing the risk of virus transmission via the person-to-person exchange of paper documents.

The G20 Rome Guidelines for the Future of Tourism has called for a common international approach to COVID-19 testing, vaccination, certification, and information along with promoting digital traveler identity.

The G7 discussions, commencing on 11 June, is the next opportunity for governments to develop a solution.

IATA stated that they should agree to: issue vaccination certificates based on World Health Organization (WHO) Smart Vaccine Certificate data standards; issue COVID-19 test certificates in accordance with the data requirements set out by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), and accept digital COVID-19 test and vaccine certificates at their borders

“This cannot wait. More and more people are being vaccinated. More borders are opening. Booking patterns tell us that pent-up demand is at extremely high levels,” Walsh said. “But governments and the competent authorities are acting in isolation and moving far too slowly. A smooth restart is still possible. But governments need to understand the urgency and act fast,” Walsh concluded.

He suggested that steps should comprise a G7 agreement, with industry input, on a common set of COVID-19 travel requirements, and then implement the recognized requirements.

“If the G7 took these leadership measures, the freedom to travel could be seamlessly restored for about a third of all journeys,” Walsh claimed. “Other countries could build on that leadership for a safe and efficient global restart of connectivity,” he said.

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