VIEWPOINT: One year later, who’s in charge?

If borders don’t open soon, irreparable harm could set in for good.

Scenes like this one at Suvarnabhumi Airport are becoming rare as travel starts to resume in Asia and elsewhere. (PHOTO: Shutterstock)

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Matt Driskill, editor of Asian Aviation.

It’s been a year since the World Health Organisation declared the COVID-19 global pandemic and everyone in Asia-Pacific and around the world knows what’s happened to aviation. Billions of dollars have been lost by airlines, airports and everyone in the travel value chain like hotels, car rental companies, airport restaurants, duty free shopping and on and on. At the end of 2020 the future looked dim by any metric one cared to use to measure the state of the industry. That began to change — somewhat — with the announcement that vaccines had been developed in record time, but that hope was overshadowed by new COVID-19 variants that began to emerge in South Africa and the UK, which quickly began to spread across the globe.

Hope springs eternal however, and the aviation industry is more optimistic in the first quarter of 2021 as global vaccinations roll out and domestic travel in places like China, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, and other countries with strong domestic networks see traffic trending upward, albeit in fits and starts as small outbreaks of the virus arise from time to time, necessitating local lockdowns.

Despite the positive trends in domestic travel, the industry is hobbled on regional and international flights as countries continue to impose quarantine measures that groups like the International Air Transport Association (IATA) maintain are killing the industry. As one IATA official told me in an In Conversation interview on, the problem for his group is that they’re dealing with health ministers who want “zero infections”, which is impossible, instead of transportation ministers who understand that testing is the way to go.

Testing has also received a big boost with the development of so-called “digital health certificates” that as of now, would provide COVID-19 testing results using an app that would have a QR code that could be scanned and understood and accepted by border authorities. The problem, however, is that so many of these applications are either in development or in early stages of use that it ’s hard to know who’s in charge and which governments accept which application.

A quick unscientific check shows the IATA Travel Pass is at the top of the list, followed by The Commons Project’s CommonPass. Then there’s the Clear Health Pass, the IBM Digital Health Pass, an app called VeriFLY and finally the V-Health application. All of these applications do pretty much the same thing, but none are using the same standards like a true passport and as of now, it ’s unclear which one will be approved by the majority of governments.

The “who’s in charge” question is a valid one. It seems obvious that a group like the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) could and should mandate standards that its member countries can follow and harmonise those standards so that health app developers can meet them. While ICAO has offered guidelines, it ’s mainly IATA that has done the heavy lifting in trying to get governments, airlines and others in the aviation value chain to agree on the way forward.

The problem is we’re running out of time. If borders don’t open soon, irreparable harm could set in for good. Airlines alone have already lost billions of dollars and continue to burn through their cash reserves at an alarming rate. The latest example is Cathay Pacific, which lost almost US$3 billion last year, shut down its Cathay Dragon unit, and fired thousands of employees.

People want to travel and if there was a single digital pass accepted by all border authorities it could reopen the world. IATA said recently that a survey it did showed travellers have “growing confidence” in a return to air travel and are “frustrated” with the current restrictions. The survey also showed that about 84 percent of travellers will not travel if it involves a quarantine at the destination. “While we are making good progress with numerous trials (on the Travel Pass), we are still awaiting the global standards for digital testing and vaccine certificates. Only with global standards and governments accepting them can we maximise efficiency and deliver an optimum travel experience,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s former director general and CEO.

I think I can safely say we all hope someone takes charge and those standards arrive soon.

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