Paper-based Covid-19 travel documents vulnerable to fraud, warns CEO of global airline body

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A tourist using an immunity passport app on a phone for travel.
A tourist using an immunity passport app on a phone for travel.
  • Paper-based systems for ensuring compliance with Covid-19 travel requirements are not a sustainable option, according to the CEO of the International Air Transport Association.
  • The association released its latest data on passenger traffic on Wednesday.
  • African airlines saw a drop of 68% in passenger traffic in February 2021 compared to February two years ago.

Experience to date has already demonstrated that using paper-based systems regarding required Covid-19-related travel documents is not a sustainable option. This according to Willie Walsh, new CEO of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), who spoke at his first media briefing on Wednesday.

"Paper-based systems are vulnerable to fraud. And even with the limited amount of flying today, the check-in process needs pre-Covid-19 staffing levels just to handle the paperwork. Paper processes will not be sustainable when travel ramps up."

That is why IATA is promoting its Travel Pass app, which was developed in anticipation of the need to manage health credentials digitally.

"This will be an essential consideration for all governments when they are ready to relink their economies with the world through air travel. We have recently seen Oxera-Edge Health research highlighting the efficacy of fast, accurate and affordable rapid tests for Covid-19. These developments should reassure governments that there are ways to efficiently manage the risks of Covid-19 without relying on demand-killing quarantine measures or expensive and time-consuming PCR testing," said Walsh. 

Therefore, according to Walsh, two key components for an efficient restart of air travel are urgently needed. The first is the development of global standards for digital Covid-19 tests or vaccination certificates. The second is governments accepting certificates digitally.

Passenger data

African airlines' traffic dropped 68% in February 2021 compared to February two years ago and in February this year capacity contracted 54.6% compared to February 2019, said Walsh.

He explained that, because comparisons between 2021 and 2020, monthly results are distorted by the extraordinary impact of Covid-19 during February 2020, comparisons were made to February 2019, which still followed a normal demand pattern.

IATA's latest data shows that total demand for air travel in the world in February 2021 was down 74.7% compared to February 2019. Global international passenger demand in February was 88.7% below February 2019. Performance in all regions worsened compared to January 2021.

"February showed no indication of a recovery in demand for international air travel. In fact, most indicators went in the wrong direction as travel restrictions tightened in the face of continuing concerns over new coronavirus variants. [But] people have not lost their desire travel. They will fly, provided they can do so without facing quarantine measures," said Walsh.

IATA chief economist Brian Pearce commented that some travel barriers are coming down in Africa, but international air travel from the continent remains very low.

"Because of the slow vaccination rollout expected on the continent, I think some of those markets will be limited for some time," said Pearce.

According to Walsh, global international passenger travel is down almost 89%.

"We expect strong pent-up demand to return once governments remove travel restrictions. We are optimistic that passenger traffic will recover and strongly so. We want to work with governments to ensure it is easy for airlines to increase capacity in a coordinated and safe way when demand returns, and people can get back to enjoy the freedoms they had before the pandemic," said Walsh.

"Vaccination should not be mandated for flying. I think a robust testing system or combination of both should be acceptable. We are managing risk ... [and] resist the temptation to just accept this as the norm. Measures are in place for a reason and once that reason is removed, then one could go back to normal."

In his view, it is, therefore, very important to realise that, while the future is uncertain, measures should not become a permanent part of the industry if they can be removed after the pandemic crisis has been managed.

"Vaccinations should help reduce the health emergency governments are worried about and we would also like to see cheaper, faster and more comfortable tests being embraced by governments so that customers can enjoy a smooth travel experience," said Walsh.

Fair basis

IATA wants to see the airline industry compete on a fair and transparent basis and that any form of aid does not distort healthy competition.

Asked about the likelihood of consolidations in the airline industry, Walsh said in the short term, he does not think many airlines would rather use any cash or liquidity they have available to them on something like that. Furthermore, some airlines already struggled before the coronavirus crisis came and they will, in his view, be in a weak position after the crisis. This might then create opportunities for consolidation.  

"I think it will be some time before we will see normal mergers and acquisitions like before the pandemic. Strong airlines might look to fill gaps other airlines, forced to trim their networks, have left. It will take some time to stabilise," concluded Walsh.

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