October 21, 2020

United Airlines trials COVID-19 ‘health pass’ to kick-start global travel again

[MarketWatch, Business Wire]

United Airlines will on Wednesday test a digital health pass as part of a global pilot program designed to accelerate a safer opening of international borders and kick-start global travel.

The CommonPass system is a nonprofit initiative backed by the World Economic Forum and Swiss-based foundation The Commons Project.

Under the trial, volunteers on the United Airlines UAL flight from London Heathrow to Newark Liberty International in New Jersey on Oct. 21 will have taken a COVID-19 test up to 72 hours before traveling, and logged the results from a certified laboratory on the CommonPass app on their phones.

They will also use the app to complete any additional screening measures, such as a health declaration that may be required by the destination country. The app then generates a quick response code that airline staff and border officials can scan.

The Newark Airport trial will take place under the observation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, who will be waiting for passengers when the flight lands.

If it works, the digital pass could help countries reopen their borders and allow international travel, which has been hammered by the coronavirus pandemic, to resume.

At the peak of the pandemic in April, 194 countries implemented visa restrictions and 143 closed their borders in an effort to curb the spread of coronavirus, according to the World Health Organization

Since then, some countries, including Singapore, Australia, and Japan have started gradually easing travel restrictions as coronavirus cases slow and as they try to revive their economies.

Thomas Crampton, chief marketing and communications officer for the Commons Project, said that, at present, COVID-19 test results are frequently shared on printed paper from unknown labs and written in languages foreign to those inspecting them.

“Today we demonstrate that you can document COVID status in a certified manner across international borders in a privacypreservingmanner,” Crampton told MarketWatch.

Sandy Morris, equity analyst at Jefferies, said neither COVID testing nor vaccines are a silver bullet. “However, the combination of rapid testing, vaccines and the CommonPass digital health pass could offer a way forward.

“The open question is how fast a digital solution like CommonPass can be deployed. Our guess is it will be rapid,” Morris added.

CommonPass said that if trials prove successful, it aims to quickly expand to additional airlines and routes across Asia, Africa, the Americas, Europe, and the Middle East.

The health pass is adaptable, allowing governments to update their entry requirements as the science of the pandemic evolves. And by generating a unique, verifiable and secure QR code, it allows users to document their COVID status but not their personal health information.

The first trial of the digital health pass took place earlier in October on a Cathay Pacific 293 flight between Hong Kong and Singapore Changi Airport.

The news comes a day after Heathrow Airport launched the U.K.’s first pre-departure testing facility. Passengers flying from London Heathrow to Hong Kong and Italy will now be able to get rapid COVID-19 tests before checking in.

The test, which can be booked online, costs £80 ($104), and results will be available within 60 minutes.

International Consolidated Airlines IAG -owned British Airways, Virgin Atlantic (49% owned by Delta Air Lines DAL ), and Cathay Pacific will be the first airlines to offer the testing facility.

“Ultimately, we need a common international standard for pre-departure testing, and we welcome the U.K. government’s recent announcement that it wants to take a global lead in establishing this,” said John Holland-Kaye, chief executive of Heathrow, about the new testing facilities.

By Lina Saigol

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