How will we ever overcome the confusion and complexity of travel related to COVID-19?

Jeremy Springall is the lead for SITA AT BORDERS which primarily focuses on border security and facilitation. Here he gives us his perspective on the future of post-COVID travel.

When it comes to travel, the debate over what is required in terms of new COVID documents to board a plane is raging. Do you need a PCR test? Lateral flow? A vaccination record? Evidence of recovery – or a combination?

In the UK, the government has removed all testing requirements for fully vaccinated passengers arriving in the country from 11 February 2022, with passengers now only having to complete the Passenger Locator Form (PLF) . Over the past two weeks, a slew of countries have announced plans to reopen or ease border restrictions.

These include places like Australia which have maintained some of the strictest pandemic-related border controls in the world.

Although the relaxation of the rules is welcome, the central problem of passenger confusion remains.

Domestic travel has recovered faster, but international air travel remains constrained in part due to a lack of passenger confidence. A driving factor in this equation is the confusion around country-specific COVID mandates.

What challenges has the aviation industry faced during COVID-19?

Over the past few decades, air travel has become easier and more accessible as technological improvements and standardization have provided a more consistent experience for passengers.

Travel insurance, flight departure updates, mobile experiences, better airport wellness, dining and entertainment options have been crucial.

But above all, a widely recognized assurance that the passenger can board a flight and return home safely. This boosted passenger confidence and propelled the industry forward.

But there are still challenges to consider and overcome. Like a game of Jenga, destabilizing an area of ​​travel and presenting passengers with the very real scenario of being denied entry to a country or being forced into quarantine, makes the idea of ​​traveling less appealing.

The lack of consistent or unified communication on health status rules continues to confuse passengers.

Digitization of the process is essential

But an Advanced Passenger Processing (APP) safety net contains solutions to appease both the government and passengers. APP allows travelers to submit necessary documents for approval before boarding the plane.

Digitization of the process relieves travellers.

It offers governments, airlines and airports fast and secure digital access to health information for verification and validation – and brings with it standard approaches and coordination.

For the recovery of the industry to be successful, quick and informed decisions must be made before check-in to determine whether a passenger can travel. More importantly, it also confirms to the passenger that they have the correct documents to fly and will improve safety by avoiding bottlenecks. SITA’s digital travel declaration is an example of this – it instills confidence and simplicity in the passenger journey.

Automation of the health check process

A recent airline and airport survey identify verification of passenger health certificates as an area requiring urgent attention and investment in digitizing the process.

Last year, 81% of airline staff resorted to manual checks of paper or scanned health certificates – a process that airlines want to automate over the next three years. The majority invest in verification through a mobile app (51%) and almost half invest in kiosk-enabled health checks (45%).

Digital passenger health certification is also an urgent requirement for airports that need to standardize verification approaches. To cope with the increase in passenger traffic, nearly half of the major airports surveyed plan to introduce mobile app-enabled checks. Nearly a third intend to implement it via kiosks by 2024.

Airline investments are also increasing in areas such as self-service facilities via mobile services, unattended baggage drop, gates and baggage notifications. Nearly three-quarters (74%) of airports are now investing in biometric identity management solutions for passengers to support safety and efficiency in the age of COVID-19.

Our industry is facing pressures from all sides with an urgent need to reduce costs, optimizing operational efficiency while respecting new obstacles related to COVID-19.

It is only through simple and smart digitization of the health check experience that our industry will continue to thrive.

Sharon D. Cole