Government and Policy

Major airlines looking to ‘make digital health passports workable & easy on passengers’: A4A president testifies

Will digital COVID passport apps be optional, obligatory, or outright opposed? perspective

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While several major airlines have already been trialing various digital COVID passport rollouts, the president of Airlines for America (A4A) tells Congress that his organization is working to make digital health passports workable and easy on passengers.

But when the trials end, will the COVID passports be optional, obligatory, or outright opposed?

“We have laid out a series of elements that we think ought to be in place to make these health passports both workable and as easy on passengers as possible” — Nicholas Calio, Airlines for America President

Right now, the biggest obstacle to widespread COVID passport adoption is that, “There are still critical unknowns regarding the efficacy of vaccination in reducing transmission and limited availability of vaccines,” according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Because of this, the WHO has recommended against introducing requirements of proof of vaccination or immunity for international travel as a condition of entry.

However, as new data continues to pour in, this recommendation could be rescinded at any time.

If-and-when that happens, the issue of voluntary or mandatory consent should become front-and-center of public debate, and indeed that’s a discussion already taking place in private think tanks and government institutions throughout the globe.

If COVID passports were to be voluntary, but not everyone consented, then how effective would they be?

Meanwhile, major airlines are laying the groundwork for digital COVID passport takeoff.

Speaking on behalf of the group that advocates for several major airlines, including American Airlines, Delta, Alaska Airlines, Jetblue, Southwest, and United, A4A President Nicholas Calio told Congress on Tuesday that vaccination data would be crucial for travel to return to normal and that A4A had already come up with criteria and standards for digital health passport rollouts.

Nicholas Calio
Nicholas Calio

“We have some of our members looking at apps. We have a set of criteria, which I’ll be happy to share with you offline about […] What kind of standards have to apply, and how you would do it” — Nicholas Calio

“We think that verifiable testing of vaccination data is critical to the return of travel,” he told the Aviation Subcommittee of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

“We do believe that there are principles that should be applied across the board to make this workable and protect the rights of passengers.

“We would be happy to brief the committee on where we stand on this, because we have laid out a series of elements that we think ought to be in place to make these health passports both workable and as easy on passengers as possible,” he added.

When asked earlier if Calio had heard any talks among industry stakeholders about implementing digital health passports, the A4A president said that indeed he had, and that he’d be happy to share the criteria they came up with, but offline.

Congressman Brian Mast: “Let me go on record as saying I do no think that these should be requirements at all for travel — a test or a vaccine — but with some airlines running apps to track whether this has occurred and talking about standardization at the same time, what do you see going on in terms of the potential of a push for that?”

Calio: “I think it’s [digital health app] something we’re looking at, congressman, in an effort to open up markets and give people the freedom to fly.

“We have some of our members looking at apps. We have a set of criteria, which I’ll be happy to share with you offline about if there’s going to be such a thing, what kind of standards have to apply, and how you would do it.”

Will Digital COVID Passports be Voluntary, Mandatory or Moot?

According to a recent report from the Center for Global Development think tank, “It is not a matter of if—but when—a COVID Vaccination Certificate will be a prerequisite for essential activities, especially cross-border travel.”

If COVID passports were to be voluntary, but not everyone consented, then how effective would they be?

What difference would it make if you received a COVID passport, but the person on the plane sitting next to you never did?

What advantages would one have over the other?

“It is not a matter of if—but when—a COVID Vaccination Certificate will be a prerequisite for essential activities, especially cross-border travel” — Center for Global Development

On the other hand, if COVID passports were mandated by either the government or the private sector (i.e. airlines, airports, travel agencies, etc.), wouldn’t that be essentially denying citizens the right travel freely or even access to essential goods and services should they refuse the jab?

And if digital vaccine passports were made mandatory by industry or government for international travel, how long would it take for them to become obligatory for domestic travel? How about for going out shopping, to school, or any other public place?

Will the debates conclude that mandatory vaccine passports are the only way forward for the greater good, or will the right to personal choice prevail in the same vein as “my body, my choice?”

And will there ever be a scenario where a government says “yes” to voluntary consent, but the corporations say “no?”

“If data support that vaccines can reduce person-to-person transmission of the virus, vaccination may be another strategy to reduce the incidence of COVID-19 associated with travel” — US Department of Transportation

As of today’s publication, the World Health Organization, the Ada Lovelace Institute, and the US Department of Transportation have all advised that governments should not require vaccine passports at present due to a lack of evidence that the COVID-19 vaccines actually prevent the transmission from person-to-person.

However, “If data support that vaccines can reduce person-to-person transmission of the virus, vaccination may be another strategy to reduce the incidence of COVID-19 associated with travel,” according to the Department of Transportation’s Runway to Recovery report, which was endorsed by A4A in July, 2020.

The Department of Transportation anticipates “providing more guidance in future updates of this document as vaccination becomes more widespread in general populations throughout the world and as data becomes available regarding the impact of vaccination on virus transmission.”

“The federal government is exploring the use of digital vaccine certificates for use in international travel, but the standards, solutions, and information security issues for digital health passports or other measures are not yet defined” — Heather Krause, Government Accountability Office Director

While government is advised against issuing COVID vaccine passports for the time being, it doesn’t mean that the public sector isn’t researching and preparing for a time when they could be given the green light.

For example, signed on January 21, 2021, the White House Executive Order on Promoting COVID-19 Safety in Domestic and International Travel has already given the order for government agencies to “assess the feasibility of linking COVID-19 vaccination to International Certificates of Vaccination or Prophylaxis (ICVP) and producing electronic versions of ICVPs.”

Executive Order on Promoting COVID-19 Safety in Domestic and International Travel, January 21, 2021

Digital Health Passports Lack Security & Standards

In her written testimony submitted to Tuesday’s congressional hearing, Government Accountability Office Director Heather Krause said that government explorations into digital vaccine passports have come out lacking on standards and security.

Heather Krause
Heather Krause

“Other aspects of the public health response to the pandemic have only begun, including efforts to develop robust contact tracing and data sharing between governments and airlines” — Heather Krause, Government Accountability Office Director

“The federal government is exploring the use of digital vaccine certificates for use in international travel, but the standards, solutions, and information security issues for digital health passports or other measures are not yet defined,” she wrote.

“Other aspects of the public health response to the pandemic have only begun, including efforts to develop robust contact tracing and data sharing between governments and airlines.”

In addition to digital passports, major airlines have also been endorsing digital contact tracing “as an additional layer of protection for the traveling public.”

Airlines Back Voluntary Contact Tracing Apps

Last year, A4A announced that Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines had committed to “collecting contact tracing data from passengers traveling into the United States and transmitting that data to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as an additional layer of protection for the traveling public.”

According to the press release, carriers have agreed to ask customers to voluntarily provide the following key elements to aid the CDC as they support local public health authorities conducting contact tracing during the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Legal name
  • Two phone numbers
  • Email address
  • The address of where travelers will be staying in the US or address of permanent residence in the US

So, major airlines have come out in favor of “voluntary” contact tracing, but will they back the voluntary use of COVID passports as well?

A Closer Union of Corporation and State

Would it make a difference to you or I if COVID passport rules and standards came from either the government or the major airlines?

When everything is all said and done, they might not need a mandate to coerce you into getting a COVID vaccine passport — all they would need is to take away your ability to travel, to gather in public places, or to participate in civic functions if you don’t.

Will the debates conclude that mandatory vaccine passports are the only way forward for the greater good, or will the right to personal choice prevail in the same vein as “my body, my choice?”

In other words, they might not force you get the jab, but they can deny you access to goods and services if you don’t.

As major airlines, tech companies, and governments consolidate on digital health app projects like the World Economic Forum-backed Common Pass, it looks to be that both corporate and state actors are working in tandem towards a “great reset” of society and the global economy.

A timeline of the great reset agenda: from foundation to Event 201 and the pandemic of 2020

Proof of COVID jab will be required for essential domestic activities & global travel: think tank report

COVID vaccine passport rollouts ‘not currently justified’, risk normalizing health surveillance: UK think tank report

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Tim Hinchliffe
Tim Hinchliffe is the editor of The Sociable. His passions include writing about how technology impacts society and the parallels between Artificial Intelligence and Mythology. Previously, he was a reporter for the Ghanaian Chronicle in West Africa and an editor at Colombia Reports in South America. tim@sociable.co