Safety first: the new airline tools restoring traveler trust post COVID

Vaccine passports and health credentialing are key to getting passengers on board again

By | 6 minute read | April 12, 2021

March 28 of this year, the Transportation Security Administration recorded more than 1.5 million passengers traveling through airports in the United States. It was the third time that month that so many people flew—and also the third time in just over a year.

On the last day of February 2020, there were 2.35 million passengers, a typical number for the off-season. By March 14, it was 1.51 million. Two weeks later saw less than 1/10th that, 146,348. The bottom came within a month: 87,534 passengers on April 14.

While we are still a million passengers shy of what was once called “normal,” like many things during the pandemic, it can feel at times remarkable that we’ve made it this far this fast. People have gotten here by necessity, as well as something even more intangible and hard to come by: trust. The buzzing energy of pent-up demand for air travel is palpable. Yet would-be travelers need to know—and be inspired—that it’s safe to fly.

The airlines, lodging and travel companies that can help customers not only believe but truly trust again are the ones who stand to bounce back alongside those desperate to venture out anew.

According to a forthcoming study by IBM’s Institute for Business Value, vaccinated consumers were around 1.5 times more likely to expect to take an overnight trip in the next 6 months. However, 1 in 4 surveyed said that they do not plan to travel in 2021 even after receiving a vaccine.

These competing desires underscore one thing: it’ll be the travel companies that put a significant effort into ensuring customer safety and trust who will capture enthusiastic travelers, and could even convert reluctant ones through enhanced protocols.

With the record-breaking speed of COVID vaccine development and the rate of vaccination accelerating in many parts of the world, the main proxy for safety has begun to shift in earnest from pre-travel testing to vaccination status. In the near future, proof of vaccination—what many are calling a vaccine passport—will likely become the standard credential for safe post-COVID air travel.

While that’s a reason for optimism, air travel’s resurgence will depend on how well the systems and protocols are put into place.

Chart showing US passenger travel in March of 2019, 2020 and 2021. For 2020, rates fell sharply. For 2021, they are below 2019 but on the rise.

CLICK TO ZOOM. (Source:US TSA)

Gloria Guevara, president and CEO of the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), believes it’s essential that the whole travel community recognize perhaps the most important insight from the post-9/11 recovery: the importance of coordination.

“The fact that each country had its own security protocols—that lack of commonality had the effect of undercutting trust in travel, and that held back the recovery,” Guevara said during a recent online event from the World Aviation Festival. “To avoid making the same mistakes, strong international and public-private coordination on establishing standards and protocols is a must.”

A passport check-up

If a vaccine passport system is to be created, how should it be built? What credentials should it seek to verify? How should it be integrated seamlessly into the customer’s post-COVID travel experience? Even before COVID, the WTTC was already brainstorming with IBM on digitally streamlining the airport experience, putting it on the path to developing a digital travel credential.

What’s new now is the centrality of health data to such a profile, which presents fresh challenges.

Greg Land, IBM global industry leader for Aviation, Hospitality and Travel-related Services, takes a holistic view of what airlines are looking for. Carriers recognize that digital health credentialing needs to fit into their day-to-day functions and throughout their IT, whether that’s at the ticket counter, the gate, onboard or in the cockpit.

“Just as important, it needs to be adaptable over the long term,” Land said. “That’s why I think a platform approach makes most sense.”

Waiting for flight at gate

Travelers need to know—and be inspired—that it’s safe to fly.

Land further notes that the issues of security and credentialing present airlines with a conundrum. While he believes that airlines recognize that health credentialing represents a big step toward restoring trust in the safety of flying, they’re also understandably reluctant to own or even manage their customers’ health data, and their employees on the whole aren’t comfortable handling it.

“Most airlines prefer to work within an ecosystem where they can integrate passenger data into their processes in a secure and seamless way,” Land said.

Travel cred for health credentials

When it comes to putting a digital health credential in place, airlines are uniquely positioned to lead the travel sector for two reasons. First, airport procedures are relatively standardized across the world, so an adaptable framework is in place. Second, digital apps have already become deeply ingrained within the air travel experience.

But important operational details remain opaque. Systems would need to extend beyond the airport to be truly effective and worthwhile, Land points out, encompassing hospitality, rail, cruise ships. “You’d want it to cover the entire journey,” Land said.

Just as importantly, health credentials need to easily integrate into the wide range of systems that are touched during the journey, from airlines’ travel apps to airport departure control systems to each jurisdiction’s systems, like border control. And for a truly seamless experience—one that takes place within a global travel ecosystem—fragmentation needs to be avoided at all costs.

Passenger checking in

Health credential data is critical to restoring trust in the safety of flying.

Checking in at the aiport

The need for trust in the travel services incorporates a seamless process.

But what about when fragmentation, as in COVID testing across countries, in unavoidable? Singapore’s approach is different than the United Kingdom’s and the United States’. Land believes that for health credentialing to be scalable, those country-by-country rules need to be built into the system.

“Customers can’t be expected to bear the burden of checking the rules at every stage of their journey,” Land said. “Their need for trust incorporates not only the accuracy and security of their health data, but also the integrity of the process all the way through.”

Overcoming COVID borders and boundaries

One way to overcome concerns about security, privacy and flexible automation is through the emerging technology of blockchain. With its immutable records, it can create an easily transferrable, global accounting of records and routes. Hence IBM’s decision to make blockchain the basis for its health credentialing solution, IBM Digital Health Pass.

“Digital Health Pass gives each member of the credentialing ecosystem the flexibility to set their own criteria, whether it pertains to testing, vaccine status or anything else,” says Land. “That’s the kind of flexibility needed to accommodate each country’s requirements as well as other players in the journey like transit and hotels.”

Passenger in airport

Communicating how a safer experience will be provided is key to post Covid travel.

Another advantage of this approach is that it’s designed to simplify integration into the airline’s broader technology platform. Using a digital adapter, airlines can create a single point of integration. This could be their technical back-end, their digital channels or employee-facing applications.

Digital Health Pass has already gained traction in New York state and Germany, where implementations are underway.

For post-COVID travel’s rebound, it’s not a question of “whether” or even when but “how fast?” The airlines have eliminated change fees, for example, and offered more touchless capabilities. To get back to business, the sky’s the limit, health credentials an important waypoint.