The coronavirus crisis will ebb one day but we now know what a pandemic is. A likely lingering legacy will be a reluctance to touch what others have touched. The screens against which we flatten our boarding passes at the airport departure gates, for example. US immigration fingerprint machines. The e-gate slots we slide our passports into. Not to mention passports themselves: how comfortable will we feel handing them over at check-in, boarding and immigration? How comfortable will the people we hand them to feel?
This crisis should spur the travel industry into rethinking how it returns: leaner, greener — and more alert to its passengers’ health.
David Greenky, a paediatric emergency specialist at Atlanta’s Emory University medical school, emailed me after I wrote about the importance of pre-flight testing. He pointed out that Covid-19 was not the first travel-facilitated infection we have seen — we have had Ebola and Sars — and it would not be the last. We needed more than pretesting. We needed a set-up to cope both with the health crisis we have now and those we will almost certainly face in the future.
Our largely paper-based travel systems are not up to the task, not only because they require excessive handling but because they hold limited information. Most of us have among our documents a yellow booklet recording our vaccinations. Mine has scribbles such as “diphtheria, tetanus & poliomyelitis”, followed by a scrawled signature and a stamp.
The International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis, as the yellow book is officially titled, is hardly fraud-proof. Nor is it equipped for the range of Covid-19 tests that different countries now require. Some are happy with saliva tests that can be processed before departure in 20 minutes; others demand polymerase chain reaction tests that have to be sent to a laboratory.
CommonPass is an attempt to keep up with countries’ changing entry requirements, assemble them in a digital form and allow the passenger to reveal only what is required.
Set up by The Commons Project, a Swiss-registered NGO, CommonPass was tested last month by passengers on a United Airlines flight from London to Newark and on a Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong to Singapore. The passengers’ arrival in Newark was observed by US Customs and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CommonPass app assesses what tests are needed for the passengers’ destinations, loads the results on to their phones and generates a scannable QR code. There is no need for anyone to touch it. It will be flexible enough to accommodate changes in countries’ admission rules and medical developments, such as a vaccine. Paul Meyer, The Commons Project’s chief executive, says he is in talks with 37 governments and the main airline alliances.
But that still leaves us with our passports — paper-based, but usually these days with a machine-readable chip embedded. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the International Air Transport Association was at work on a paperless passport. Its project, One ID, would mean the passenger providing biometric information in advance that would allow them to check in, board and pass through immigration on arrival without anyone asking them for any documentation.
The possible objections are legion. Facial recognition, as travellers know from e-gates, has improved but is still ropey. Iris recognition may be better but it can be hard to get kids to stand still for it.
There are privacy worries (although our passport chips give away much already). And what if the airport system goes down? The questions are all valid. But travel has relied on paper for decades. The current lull should be a time for reinvention.
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