Digital health passports have been touted in recent months as a potential antidote for the headaches caused by inconsistent testing protocols and, potentially, varied vaccine requirements. Without such virtual solutions, it's argued, international travel may be slowed even after the Covid-19 pandemic begins to retreat.
And with no widely-deployed application currently in use, airlines are bracing for new logistical challenges on Jan. 26, when regulations take effect requiring that all incoming travelers to the U.S. either show proof of a negative Covid-19 test or evidence that they have recovered from a recent case of the virus.
Among U.S. carriers, American Airlines, as of Jan. 20, is offering a digital passport solution on day one of the new regulations, and on Monday, United announced that flyers can now upload required testing and vaccination records to the its app for verification prior to their airport arrival. Others digital health pass solutions that are inching toward the marketplace are being developed by private companies, the airline industry trade group IATA and the World Economic Forum-backed Common Project Foundation.
The key unanswered question is whether the diffuse digital health passport landscape that's emerging can ultimately be integrated in a manner that streamlines cross-border travel, as opposed to making it even more confusing.
"I think what's key is to get interoperability among the various passports," said Travelocity founder Terry Jones, who now consults and speaks about travel technology innovation.
Jones said he hopes the Biden administration can take a lead in establishing a set of digital standards that all private health passport developers would comply with.
Some passes have been designed for functionality that goes well beyond international travel. For example, the NBA's Orlando Magic is using the Health Pass app from the biometrics company Clear to enforce a requirement that all fans who hold courtside seats show proof of a negative Covid-19 test. Test results are delivered directly and securely via authorized labs to the app. When a user has met entry requirements established by the Magic, a QR code is generated and linked to the ticket holder's face.
Similarly, health passes have been designed to support Covid-free workplaces.
In November, American began using its health passport solution, Verifly, designed by the biometrics firm Daon, for departures to select international destinations from Miami.
The new CDC testing requirement for incoming U.S. travel compelled the carrier to rapidly expand Verifly access to 91 international points of origin beginning Jan. 23.
American, like all airlines, will also do manual health document reviews at airports for customers who don't use the Verifly app.
Preston Peterson, the carrier's director of customer experience innovation, said that on some flights out of Miami, passengers using the carrier's separate Verifly check-in lane have been spared hours of time in line.
Verifly users, he explained, have their negative test results verified by Daon prior to reaching the airport. Similar to Clear's Health Pass, the app then displays a simple message indicating that a person has completed testing requirements, which check-in agents match with a flyer's ID.
In contrast, American customers not using Verifly have to produce testing documents in paper or digital forms at the airport for review by check-in agents. While American is working with agents to help them recognize abnormalities in such documents, Peterson said, those agents aren't experts in fraud detection.
Unlike the Clear solution, Verifly currently doesn't work directly with laboratories, so users must upload their test results. But Peterson said direct integration with laboratories is in the works.
Some foreign airlines also have announced plans to deploy health passport solutions. Last week, Emirates and Etihad each announced that they would trial the IATA Travel Pass in the coming months. Meanwhile, United and JetBlue are among airlines working with the Common Project Foundation as it develops the CommonPass health passport. And although no announcements have been made related to Health Pass, United and Delta have existing relationships with Clear.
Concern nonetheless persists that a fragmented landscape will emerge in which individual airlines, other transport providers and border checkpoints themselves are siloed off, each working with specific technologies that may not communicate with one another.
Such a state of affairs could result in a confusing ecosystem in which travelers would have to link testing or vaccination documents to separate apps, depending upon which airline they are flying or which country they are entering.
In response to such concerns, a group of healthcare and technology providers, including the Common Project Foundation, established the Vaccination Credential Initiative this month with a goal of "empowering individuals with digital access to their vaccination records based on open, interoperable standards."
IATA has also pledged to work with other providers.
Jones, while welcoming the initiative, said private efforts can only go so far.
Noting Biden's push to win $2 trillion more for Covid-19 initiatives, he said the federal government could take the lead to quickly develop digital health passport standards as one small part of the economic recovery strategy.
"I think that it is going to take a concerted push by travel trade associations and individuals pushing the government to recognize that this is an issue and a real way to stimulate the economy," he said.
This report was updated on Jan. 25 with news that United passengers can now upload their testing and vaccination records to the carrier's website.