Digital health passports: AirNZ to trial

Air New Zealand will trial a “digital health passport” in April between Auckland and Sydney, allowing passengers to prove their Covid-19-negative status to Australian authorities with ease. For quarantine-free travel to Australia, New Zealanders need to provide evidence of a negative PCR test from within 72 hours of departure.

Here’s the official word from Air New Zealand: “With constantly changing entry and departure testing and paperwork requirements, we want to streamline the health verification process to help customers know what they need to take their next international trip safely.” 

The trial will utilise the International Air Travel Association’s (IATA) Travel Pass to “help give governments the confidence to re-open borders and passengers the confidence to travel”, says IATA's senior vice president of Airport, Passenger, Cargo and Security, Nick Careen.

Air New Zealand's chief digital officer, Jennifer Sepull, says the goal is to enable customers to seamlessly manage their digital travel documentation throughout their travel experience. "Once borders reopen, travel is going to look very different, with customers' health data needing to be verified at check-in,” she explains. “It's essentially like having a digital health certificate that can be easily and securely shared with airlines. This will give customers peace of mind that they meet all travel requirements for the different countries around the world before they even get to the airport.”

Air New Zealand is in conversation with government agencies about options for validation of testing and vaccination. From a user level, you be able to create a digital health wallet linked to your e-passport. Once you have been tested and/or vaccinated, your lab will securely send data to your IATA app. Blockchain technology helps you stay in control of your data because it is “decentralised”, meaning there is no central database that could be hacked to gain access to your personal health data. If/when you meet travel requirements will be given the “green tick” to travel within the app.

iata travel pass

Protocols for IATA's app | Photo: IATA

Air New Zealand is not the first to trial IATA’s app – Singapore Airlines, Etihad, Emirates, and British Airways have also signed up. The technology is considered to have real potential to help drive the airline industry out of crisis and restart global travel.

Jerry Clode, founder of the branding consultancy The Solution, believes use of a digital health passport – IATA’s version or an alternative ­­– will be essential in New Zealand future travel bubbles. He worries, however, that discussions on these bubbles are centred only around travel with other Western countries ­– and countries in Asia where we have significant economic ties aren’t being talked about. He believes a digital health passport integrated with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), of which Jacinda Ardern is chair, is the ideal way to go.

“What I’d love to see, with New Zealand as a powerful APEC country, is the standardisation of a digital health passport between all APEC nations,” he says. “The APEC Travel Card ­– which allows for visa-free entry for cardholders in participating countries ­– already exists, so it could piggyback off and existing ecosystem.” There are 21 member states of APEC, including China and Australia – two key countries for New Zealand in terms of business, politics, tourism, and education.

The use of blockchain or another highly-secure authentication system won’t please all travellers, so the IATA passport will also be offered in paper form. Given the discussions we have around privacy and personal data protection, why use a digital health passport at all and instead have a physical stamp or sticker in your actual passport? “Being paper-based opens up to manipulation and fraud,” Clode says. “But it could be part of your physical passport in the form of a QR code.”

The benefits of your “ready to fly” status being digital are twofold. Firstly, it allows you to stay up to date with ever-changing rules around border and immigration requirements for entry. Secondly, it cuts out bureaucracy and streamlines one’s ability to travel. “Say you just got vaccinated and have to travel internationally in two days. Because of the bureaucracy you’re not going to get a paper health status in time. A digital passport allows for real-time input from your health provider,” Clode says.

There is a caveat here. Clode believes digital health passports must be run in conjunction with Covid-19 vaccination campaigns, because feeding in any other personal health data to deem “at risk” flyers (e.g., age or other disease or health condition status, like HIV status), could lead to discrimination. “The only data points shared should be blockchain-validated vaccination status and confirmation of a negative test,” he adds.  

However, with inconsistency between different vaccines and their efficacy, it is likely your digital health passport will need to record which vaccine you’ve received in the event certain countries only allow you in with a specific list of “approved” vaccines. This brings up a separate issue ­– the hierarchy of inoculations known as “good vaccines” and “bad vaccines” and how nations will have differing opinions on them when global travel resumes.

-        Asia Media Centre