International airline body hails ‘successful’ use of health passport while industry tussles over how much intrusion is enough

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The International Air Transport Association has claimed a win for its vaccine certificate program, pointing to a Singapore-to-London flight as proof of concept for its health-tracking app. But not everyone’s thrilled by the idea.

The first traveler to use the IATA’s purpose-built Travel Pass digital health certificate successfully landed at London’s Heathrow Airport on Wednesday on a flight from Singapore, the airline industry body announced in a press release, gushing that the technology would “securely, conveniently and efficiently help travelers and governments” to keep visitors’ health credentials straight and their own citizens healthy, as the world’s population itches to resume its normal activities after a year of stifling Covid-19 lockdowns.

Despite the fanfare, the negative civil liberties implications for passengers who’ll be expected to use these new digital apps – and the IATA’s Travel Pass is just one of many – have largely been ignored in the public-facing discourse coming from participating airlines and industry organizations. 

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Digital health credentials will be essential as borders reopen and travel restrictions get progressively lifted worldwide,” acting senior vice president of marketing planning for Singapore Airlines JoAnn Tan said in an IATA press release published on Wednesday. The executive apparently saw nothing more sinister than “using secure digital solutions to verify health credentials, and support a safe and seamless travel experience for our customers” in an app that could theoretically be expected to carry sensitive health data for the entire air-traveling population. 

Some airlines, such as Australia’s Qantas, the Philippines’ Cebu Pacific, and Ireland’s Ryanair, have rushed to embrace the notion of “jab and go” vaccine-mandatory air travel, even as some travel agencies have bristled at the notion of forcing air travelers to take a vaccine they do not want.

Announcing its new Covid-19 passport back in December, Singapore Airlines insisted the new biometric model is merely part of the vaunted “new normal” for global travel.

But as Europe rushes to install its own health-certificate-based travel system and reopen for tourism, heads of state are fretting over what kind of baselines to use to evaluate health without mandating one of half a dozen jabs, all of which have varying degrees of acceptance among member states. As of Wednesday, Serbia was the only European country to have vaccinated more than 10% of its citizens, and no European leader has been willing to publicly demand vaccination as a prerequisite to travel (though French and British officials have toyed with the concept). The Israeli government has shown more of a willingness than some of its neighbors to wield the vaccine as both carrot and stick, threatening refuseniks with exclusion from the perks of civilization.

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Even international tourism industry bodies have not found agreement regarding their vision of a surveillance-mediated future. Gloria Guevara, head of the World Travel and Tourism Council, warned in December that if governments began mandating vaccination for travel in 2021 they would “kill their sector.” It’s no idle threat, with the airline and tourism industries having hemorrhaged $3.8 trillion globally last year alone, though the IATA’s director Alexandre de Juniac argued last week that people’s “hunger” to be “free again” would speed up in the second half of 2021, but the pace would depend on how quickly states open their borders as vaccine programs accelerate.

Other voices have suggested that without a willingness to compromise on certain civil liberties, residents of western democracies might find themselves pulled even further out of their comfort zone, forced to participate in systems devised by more authoritarian countries (or Big Tech).

But other entities who’ve long since embraced the idea of a health passport think the IATA’s vaccination certificate simply doesn’t go far enough. One model that has been widely tested on airlines including Lufthansa, United, and Virgin Atlantic is based on a design devised by the World Economic Forum, tested and built in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation-funded Commons Project. 

The app uses technology similar to the Known Traveler Digital Identity project the WEF has been working on for years, a combination biometric passport, bank card, and reputational tracker operating on the blockchain.

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