Update: British Airways confirms to GSTP that the airline will trial ‘Digital Health Passport’ app VeriFLY, from February 4th for passengers from London to the USA. The trial shows British Airways “commitment to exploring ways to make travel easier for our customers for when it is the right time to travel.”

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any lower, a trend emerged with travelers forging covid-19 tests to board planes, potentially while infected. Really, it’s the stuff of nightmares. So how can airlines move forward with trustworthy results, rather than relying on check in staff to validate often complex documents?

It turns out, there’s an app for that. Or rather, apps.

Airlines Embrace Digital Health Passport Apps

British Airways is set to become the latest airline to embrace VeriFLY, and perhaps also the IATA Travel Pass, which are designed to seamlessly enable travelers to understand destination restrictions, obtain access to any necessary tests or info required to travel and then securely verify test results, all in one place.

Qatar Airways, the majority stakeholder in the IAG Group which owns British Airways will also trial the IATA Travel Pass ‘Digital Passport’ App on upcoming flights. Etihad and Emirates also expressed a desire to trial the app from March.

How Digital Health Passport Apps Work

You’ll open it up to find out exactly what’s needed to visit your destination, see a list of approved labs and accepted tests for said destination, and then the lab will be able to upload and share the results directly in the app, giving you an easy ‘tick box’ with a QR code to prove to an airline you’re ready to fly.

In theory, it should all be touch free, allowing you to show your phone to a check-in agent, who will see the tick box, and clear you for check in and boarding.

The apps should be a welcomed improvement on the current state of flux and uncertainty, adding far greater ease – but it also raises many questions, and more importantly – privacy concerns.

Which Travel App Will Win?

One of the biggest initial concerns with airlines using apps to vet and verify travel documents, aside from data concerns, is which app?

Already, there’s been confusion as to which app British Airways will embrace for international flights from mid February. Will it be VeriFLY, like BA partner American Airlines, or IATA Travel Pass, which the airline lobbying group developed in tandem with IAG, the parent company of British Airways. For now, the answer appears to be VeriFLY, or perhaps both. A tandem trial may indeed be the answer.

But if airlines can’t agree, or end up slit, will it only make travel more of a headache, rather than the simplistic solution these apps are supposed to bring?

Furthermore, if an airline group has a vested financial interest in the very app which vets and tracks vaccination and testing records, it could all get far more dubious. On the FAQ page for the current IATA Travel Pass, the company offers the following on privacy…

Q. How will IATA ensure the integrity of personal data?
Travelers always remain in control of their data with their privacy protected. The IATA Travel Pass does not store any data centrally. It simply links entities that need verification (airlines and governments) with the test or vaccination data when travelers permit. This last point is key. No verification will go to an airline or a government without the authorization of the traveler.

IATA Travel Pass

At the moment, there’s competition between IAG and IATA with IATA Travel Pass, and the World Economic Forum in partnership with other tech ventures for Common Pass.

If the former wins, will IATA, or IAG Group eventually gain additional data about passenger behavior, or far worse, health and vaccination records of passengers? It’s only one change of the app’s terms of service away, just like every other app update with 1,000,000 lines of legal agreement you scroll past.

The question is: will this remain truly anonymous but 100% verifiable, as suggested?

Fun fact: Willie Walsh is set to become the Director General of IATA, the airline lobbying group on March 31st, but previously served as the Chairman of IAG Group, which is the parent company of British Airways, and is mostly owned by Qatar Airways. Walsh is an outspoken leader, who famously stated “show me the f**king money” in an official IAG investor deck.

Look no further than recent fury with WhatsApp to see how quickly a company can suggest changes to data privacy and protection. WhatsApp was forced to delay roll out of new terms of agreement, after it emerged that data which was always said to be fully encrypted and entirely private could be shared with Facebook, in a few certain instances.

For years, even pre-crisis, initiatives were being hatched to create blockchain solutions for travel, such as KTID Passports, where users could safely manage and secure their data, and choose which parts of their data are shared, and with whom. You’d know if someone was accessing it, because you had to authorize it first.

The idea was a digital passport that protected biometric data and personal info and travelers could choose when to share, such as with authorities at a border crossing, but not at any other time. There would be a data trail (thanks to Blockchain) whenever information was accessed.

The thought of airlines, or airline groups being able to leverage this rich health data into financial success is alarming, though they’d undoubtedly welcome the financial boost. If they’re indeed simply launching the app as a solution to ease governmental fears over travel eligibility and get routes back, that’s another proposition entirely.

The thought of a digital health passport with data that remains secured and not eligible to be mined for profit in perpetuity, but rather just used as a travel verification tool is far less concerning, and one which really could open borders – quickly.

Waiting For The Dust To Settle

For now, travelers will continue navigating the minefield of travel restrictions, testing requirements and daily unknowns with a brave face on. But by mid-February, or early March, these travel vetting apps should simplify the process dramatically, and create an efficient way to travel internationally once again.

A few taps, a test or two and off you go, without hassles of agent misunderstandings or other frustrating circumstances which can arise at check in or border crossings during these times.

In the meantime, competing ventures will duke it out to become the ‘health passport’ app that’s most widely embraced, and until a winner emerges, travel will remain pretty chaotic. If travel parallels the gaming or the video industries, airline uptake will be an important angle, which gives IAG a significant advantage.

It’s been noted that the battle between HD-DVD and Blu-ray was settled by the adult entertainment industry, which showed preference to Blu-ray.

Whichever winner does emerge, it only seems right to make stern declarations that private vaccination and testing data will never be abused, and the focus of the app is purely to avoid falsified results, and to quell legitimate border concerns.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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4 Comments

  1. Just tried to set up the IATA travel app, completely useless, can log in on my laptop but not on my mobile, rubbish signposting on the IATA validation site (shows as salesforce authenticator with no cross referencing to IATA…)…. not a great start to getting myself set up with a digital health/travel wallet. IATA & BA, take note…. way below acceptable standard

  2. if the concern is fake certificates … surely this needs to be integrated so that the check in agent can verify you somehow on their system? Faking a screenshot in the app to make it look approved would be as easy as faking a certificate!

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