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March 21, 2022
5 min read

COVID Lessons: how to deal with future pandemics

Since the industry-wide adoption of electronic ticketing and the introduction of self-service options, travelers have become accustomed to airport processes that are by and large consistent and predictable. We generally know what awaits us as far as the check-in, bag drop and boarding stages of travel are concerned. We also know we will be subjected to security checks and possibly passport controls, but even these steps have become routine and hold few surprises for regular travelers. Passage through an airport from kerb-side drop-off to the aircraft door was until recently a smooth process, where the only variation in time was the length of the queues and the distance to the departure gate. At the destination, a traveler with only cabin baggage could be in a taxi within 15 minutes, even if an immigration check was required.

All this has become a distant memory since the Covid-19 pandemic. At first travel simply stopped, but then cautiously re-started as governments, airports and airlines introduced and adjusted health-related measures to manage the spread of the disease and protect their populations, customers and staff. The rapid spread and the dynamic nature of the disease meant that these measures evolved rapidly and in isolation. There was no time for nations to agree on definitions or standards and develop common processes. The result was a hotchpotch of inconsistent requirements, which could and sometimes did change daily. Some travelers were caught by a tightening of controls while they were en-route and had difficulty entering their destination or returning to their place of departure. It was not uncommon to hear of travelers being turned back at a border because they did not meet the definition of close family or could not show valid cause for travel. I have witnessed a family of four adults being rejected entry by a border-guard because of a restrictive government definition of ‘close family contact’.

The vaccination campaigns brought significant relief from travel restrictions and allowed more freedom to travel. However, demonstrating vaccination status became yet again a source of inconsistency and frustration for travelers. Not every country accepted every vaccine or every vaccine combination. Demonstrating vaccination status became a new pain-point in travel. What documentation was accepted by which country became a key question for intending travelers. The prospect of transiting in an intermediate location further increased this complexity.

From an initially chaotic situation where countries’ status could overnight change to high-risk and governments restricting entry to their own nationals and residents, we have seen the world return to a state where most countries are accepting travelers on the basis of their vaccination status. Even Australia, which for a long time held its borders tightly closed, with highly restrictive entry and quarantine requirements, has recently opened its borders and is welcoming all who are triple vaccinated. However, not all vaccination combinations are accepted and finding out which combinations will allow you across the border is not a simple task. Imagine wanting to travel with a family, including younger children who are not yet all fully vaccinated and who have received varying types of vaccine. Working through the entry requirements is a huge effort.

Apart from demonstrating vaccination status, governments now often require arriving passengers to register via a passenger locator form in the event of investigation into an infection chain. Whether a country requires the completion of an arrivals form is not always clear. As a German resident, I am aware that the German government expects me to register upon return every time I travel to an at-risk location. However, recently traveling to the UK, I was able to purchase a ticket, check-in myself and a bag and proceed to the boarding gate, all the time ignorant of the fact that the UK government expected me to complete an inbound passenger locator form. I became aware of this fact when arriving at the boarding gate and was confronted by a person checking travelers’ documentation. Judging by the number of other passengers who were also hurriedly trying to complete this form online on their mobile devices, I was far from being the only one unaware of this requirement. The online form was so lengthy and required such detail that it took me almost fifteen minutes to complete it and I was grateful to be traveling alone. Anyone traveling with a family would have either missed the flight or delayed it while frantically trying to complete the forms.

This unpleasant experience was fortunately not repeated when I checked in for my connecting flight from London to Sydney. I had been clearly informed by the airline what documentation would be required and all these documents were inspected before I was even able to access the check-in desk. As a result of this up-front check, the remainder of the travel and arrival into Australia went surprisingly smooth and my passage through immigration in Sydney was the quickest I can recall.

These new challenges of traveling affect not only the passengers, but also the airlines, airports and government authorities. Passengers face the challenge of first determining what the requirements are that they need to meet, then collecting the required documentation and providing this, either online or in printed form, to airlines and government bodies. Airlines have to keep up to date with current entry requirements for each of their destinations, make this information available to their customers and then implement processes to validate the documentation. Apart from the increased operating costs this brings, there is an additional risk of departure delays or fines due to non-compliant passengers. Airports are affected by the crowding and congestion caused by the additional checkpoints put in place by airlines or authorities.

Many of us hope or believe that we are learning to live with Covid-19 and that its additional frictions in the travel process are becoming less. However, it would be dangerous to believe that there will not be another Covid-19 variant that forces the introduction of new restrictions. It would be equally unrealistic to believe that there will never be an outbreak of a new infectious disease. If we assume that there will one day again be cause for health-related travel restrictions, we should be planning for this now. What can be done to be better prepared?

Firstly, we need a better way to communicate entry requirements. Currently, each country has its own communication channels through which conditions of entry are published. However, there are no standards and it requires a traveler to spend much time and effort to comprehensively research and double-check the rules. Getting it wrong can be expensive and very disappointing.

Secondly, we need to develop ways to store and share health-related information. Identity, health status and travel intentions could be recorded in a profile, stored on a personal mobile device. To share this information with airlines and authorities, standard interfaces can be defined which can be used to extract the required information from the personal profile.

Thirdly, the validation of this information should happen as early as possible in the travel process. Airports can implement ready-to-fly checkpoints, which ensure passengers’ compliance with requirements for their destination. If airport operators take on this responsibility for the airlines, this will reduce the duplication of effort by airlines and allow the airport to manage checkpoint congestion. It also creates a consistent and predictable process for regular travelers, regardless of destination or airline. Airport operators can create online information portals where documentation requirements are clearly set out and guides to completing documentation online are provided.

The measures proposed here are not interdependent and can be developed in parallel. The development of a personal health profile standard which can be trusted to be truly secure and private and which is widely adopted will take time and should be done at a super-national level. It will require the involvement of global entities, such as IATA and also the major mobile device manufacturers, Apple and Google, to support this technically. The availability of a health profile will assist in the preparation of health documentation and will facilitate the ready-to-fly status check, but is not essential for this process. All documentation required should at all times be able to be completed without dependency on a health profile.

We may not be able to prevent another pandemic from sweeping the world, but we can ensure that we are better prepared to avoid the massive impacts that Covid-19 has had on the travel industry.