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Airlines set sights on digital passports for COVID-19 vaccine

The travel industry is moving ahead with plans to ensure a coronavirus vaccine means tourism and travel, both domestically and internationally, can quickly be revived.

Industry leaders are coordinating their efforts to create a digital passport that would say whether a passenger has been vaccinated for COVID-19.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced this week it is in the final phase of development for what it hopes will be universally accepted documentation that in turn could boost confidence among wary travelers.

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The digital health pass would include a passenger’s testing and vaccine information and would manage and verify information among governments, airlines, laboratories and travelers.

“Testing is the first key to enable international travel without quarantine measures. The second key is the global information infrastructure needed to securely manage, share and verify test data matched with traveler identities in compliance with border control requirements,” Alexandre de Juniac, IATA CEO, said in a statement on Monday.

The pass would enable travelers to find verified testing centers and labs at their point of departure that meet the standards and requirements of their destination to avoid quarantine rules and travel restrictions.

Drugmaker AstraZeneca announced Monday that its vaccine candidate, developed by Oxford University, is 70 percent effective on average but could be as high as 90 percent. Two other vaccines — one from Moderna and the other from Pfizer and BioNTech — both recently reported 95 percent efficacy rates.

When asked about how airlines are going to handle the rollout of vaccines, including how they would know if someone has been vaccinated, Airlines for America, which represents major commercial carriers, did not give a direct answer, saying only that U.S. airlines are “committed to restoring service in a manner that prioritizes the safety and wellbeing of our passengers and employees.” 

Australian airline Qantas is reportedly making plans to require passengers get vaccinated before any international flights. CEO Alan Joyce said recently he thinks other carriers should follow suit.

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U.S. airlines, which have lobbied for months for another COVID-19 relief package, say they can help the federal government with vaccine distribution.

“As the nation looks forward and takes on the logistical challenges of distributing a vaccine, it will be important to ensure there are sufficient certified employees and planes in service necessary for adequate capacity to complete the task,” several major airline CEOs wrote to congressional leaders this month. 

With passenger volumes 65 percent below 2019 levels, any sort of relief — government assistance, testing protocols or a vaccine — would be most welcome by airlines.

The Thanksgiving holiday, which is typically a large revenue driver for the travel industry, became more challenging after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a warning against traveling as coronavirus cases surge in almost all parts of the country.

The busiest air travel day during the coronavirus pandemic was the Sunday before Thanksgiving, when nearly 1.05 million passengers were screened at U.S. airports.

But that was nowhere near the levels seen in previous years.

“We’re in this situation because of the lack of leadership from the United States government. Eight months into this and there’s no cohesive program,” said Peter Vlitas, senior vice president of airline relations at the Internova Travel Group.

The group argues that international travel would be able to resume if strict protocols were in place.

“We do not have a contact tracing national policy. If I fly to the U.K., I have to fill out a form. If I fly to Greece, I have to fill out a form. Many countries, you fill out a form. Besides the standard do you have a fever ... we don’t have the simplest of things,” Vlitas said.

Last month, travel industry groups called on the Trump administration to pursue an approach to COVID-19 testing that would remove the need for quarantines and travel bans.

The letter included the U.S. Travel Association, the American Hotel & Lodging Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who all said the patchwork approach is “confusing and discourages travel.”