IATA’s Travel Pass: How Digital Health Passports Will Shape Travel’s Recovery

In December 2020, The International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced key details of its Travel Pass initiative, which it hopes will hasten the airline industry’s slow recovery following the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The pandemic had a devastating impact on global travel. Passenger revenue for the three largest airlines in the US all declined by more than 65% in 2020 according to company reports. Singapore Airlines conducted the first full test of the pass in March 2021, and the pass should become available for iOS users in mid-April 2021. While the Travel Pass will make it easier for airlines and passengers to track health information, it is unlikely to reopen travel as quickly as the industry would like. Additionally, growing pushback against the project could limit its implementation.

What is IATA’s Travel Pass?

IATA’s Travel Pass is a digital health passport. The concept is not new; cartes jaunes have long been used to track travellers’ immunisations against certain diseases. IATA created the pass to help passengers track the health requirements of their destination and for airlines to ensure all passengers comply with said regulations. The pass allows airlines to ensure the authenticity of passengers’ COVID-19 test results and can also indicate whether passengers have received a COVID-19 vaccine. Several airlines, such as American and Lufthansa, are introducing other digital health passports, which offer similar benefits as IATA’s.

Why have digital health passports become so popular?

Behind travel bans, quarantine requirements have been one of the largest barriers to air travel’s recovery. The airline industry hopes digital health passports will convince governments to eliminate quarantine requirements in favour of more rigorous COVID-19 testing. IATA has pointed to the Canary Islands as an example of how quickly air travel can rebound once governments lift quarantine requirements.

In October 2020, the Canary Islands lifted quarantine requirements for incoming passengers; airlines’ load factors for flights to the islands increased significantly overnight. Although the UK’s second lockdown prevented most travellers from taking these trips, an IATA official cited this example in January 2021 as a way the Travel Pass could spur air travel’s recovery.

Source: Euromonitor Travel Forecast Model. Note: C19 Pessimistic 1 scenario assumes growth in global COVID-19 cases in 2021 will decrease the level of international travel arrivals.

Challenges build for digital health passports

Even if the Travel Pass streamlines information about travellers’ COVID-19 testing results, it is unlikely the program will convince governments to suspend quarantine requirements. New COVID-19 variants are, instead, making quarantine rules stricter. In January 2021, for example, the US instituted a quarantine requirement for arriving international passengers, indicating governments’ continued belief that quarantine measures are necessary for international travel. Until vaccines are more widely available to the general public, quarantine will likely be linked to international travel.

The continuation of quarantine requirements does not mean digital health passports will go unused. They may become essential if governments require vaccines for international travel. The European Commission announced a Digital Green Pass on 17 March 2021. The pass will track travellers’ health information, and the Commission hopes to use it to promote travel within Europe. Tourist-dependent countries like Greece have called for similar measures to revive tourism.

Health passports are facing increasing criticism. Belgium’s Foreign Minister and the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) have both criticised these initiatives as discriminatory, both due to limited vaccine access and the potential to limit the freedom of movement. Some public health experts also worry the passports could falsely assure travellers they are protected against COVID-19 variants in any country where they travel.

The road ahead

The debate over digital health passports highlights the difficult road ahead for the airline industry. Euromonitor estimates that in the most optimistic scenario, air passengers will not recover to pre-pandemic levels until 2023, although that recovery could take longer in many markets. Even as vaccines become more available in some countries, there are still significant challenges to overcome. Digital health passports will become more common as travellers resume flying internationally. The airline industry’s recovery, however, will depend more on a long-term decline in COVID-19 cases than an improved ability to track passengers’ health information.