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The next frontier in air travel: Digital passports as proof of vaccination or testing

Governments are likely to require travelers to have some form of proof of vaccination in the near future, but critics say that could lead to inequity.
Image: Travel Pass app
Travel Pass is a new digital passport that offers paperless verification of Covid-19 test results or proof of vaccination.Carlo Angerer / NBC News

All travelers who want to fly to the U.S. are required to present proof of negative Covid-19 tests. For now, proof takes the form of a printout of a test result or a photo of the result — creating opportunities for misunderstandings or potential fraud. Newly launched digital initiatives hope to clear up any ambiguity, standardize information and share the information securely.

International travel is likely to be the first industry to use new digital passports. One of the first flights to trial a new "digital passport" embedded with vaccination information and test results took off Thursday morning, a Qatar Airways flight from Doha to Istanbul.

Fliers log in to the Travel Pass app using FaceID on their smartphones, then take selfies to authorize access. They can then scan their passports using the cameras on the phones. From there, passengers can add their itineraries, vaccination certificates and Covid-19 test results.

As part of the trial, passengers in Doha can go to a local medical center, which will send their test results directly to the app. The app shows a green check mark to say you're ready to travel. The airlines also have access to the back-end system, allowing for contactless and paperless verification.

"What it will do is give people and the authorities confidence that your documentation is correct that you have been vaccinated. You don't have to carry pieces of paper around, which you could lose and get into a bind with the authorities," Qatar Airways Group CEO Akbar Al Baker said.

Both the International Air Transport Association, which developed the Travel Pass, and the airlines using it say the Travel Pass will adhere to strict data privacy restrictions.

"It also will give you confidence as a passenger that your data that you have put into the system stays on your smartphone and is not being shared with anybody else," Al Baker said.

Over a dozen airlines have signed up to trial the pass, including Emirates, Singapore Airlines and Qantas. The pass will officially debut at the end of March.

Some governments and airlines have begun making their own apps or allowing for other digital systems. British Airways and the budget airline Ryanair have started letting passengers upload their vaccination and Covid-19 test results with their other personal booking information when they book online. But Al Baker said having a multitude of digital passport formats isn't ideal.

"We want it to be a standard form accepted by the entire world airport community and immigration community," he said.

Without the ability to trust Covid-19 tests — and eventually vaccine records — many countries will feel compelled to retain full travel bans and mandatory quarantines.

For international travel, governments are likely to require some form of proof of vaccination in the near future, similar to how some countries now mandate vaccinations for other diseases, like yellow fever or polio, airline executives say. But there are no current plans to enforce the measures on domestic flights.

"I don't see that happening in the U.S.," Delta CEO Ed Bastian said in a recent interview.

United and American Airlines are both on the International Air Transport Association's Travel Pass advisory group, providing input into the development of the app, but neither has confirmed when it will trial the feature.

In October, a United flight from London to Newark, New Jersey, did a trial run of a Covid-19 status smartphone-based system called CommonPass.

"Without the ability to trust Covid-19 tests — and eventually vaccine records — across international borders, many countries will feel compelled to retain full travel bans and mandatory quarantines for as long as the pandemic persists," Dr. Bradley Perkins, chief medical officer of The Commons Project, the nonprofit digital platform builder that developed the system, said in a statement.

"With trusted individual health data, countries can implement more nuanced health screening requirements for entry," Perkins said.

In January, President Joe Biden issued an executive order that asked government agencies to "assess the feasibility of linking Covid-19 vaccination to International Certificates of Vaccination or Prophylaxis," as well as the capability of making digital versions.

Andy Slavitt, a senior adviser on Biden's Covid-19 task force, said Monday that the administration has a series of guiding principles about vaccine passports but doesn't believe the data should be held by the government.

Several private-sector initiatives are underway, including a partnership between tech companies like Microsoft and Oracle and health organizations like the Mayo Clinic, Change Healthcare and Evernorth.

"It needs to be private; the data should be secure; the access to it should be free; it should be available both digitally and in paper, and in multiple languages; and it should be open-source," Slavitt said.

Air travel plunged in the U.S. by up to 60 percent as lockdown orders and travel restrictions curbed nonessential travel.

Glimmers of hope have begun to emerge as vaccinations have increased and infection rates have dropped overall, although flattening and even rising rates in some areas are prompting concern. Airlines boasted their highest traveler levels last weekend.

Privacy and human rights advocates are concerned that requiring a digital vaccination passport could create an unfair two-tier system: those who have easy access to them and to vaccines and those who don't.

The vaccine passports carry the danger of creating "inequity" and "false assurances of public safety," Nita Farahany, a professor of law and philosophy at Duke University, said in an email.

Liberty, the U.K.'s largest civil liberties organization,warned in a statement: "It's impossible to have immunity passports which do not result in human rights abuses."