5 major airlines are rolling out shared digital health passes to prove negative COVID-19 tests. They hope it's a step towards recovery for an industry set to lose $157 billion.

Grace Dean
·3 min read
United Airlines Mask Airplane
United Airlines
  • United Airlines, Lufthansa, Virgin Atlantic, Swiss International Air Lines, and JetBlue will be accepting a digital health pass as proof of negative COVID-19 status from December.

  • The CommonPass shows the results of passengers' COVID-19 tests, as is designed as an international standard. In the future, it could also be used to record vaccination results.

  • Currently, test results aren't issued in a standard format and vaccination records can be easily forged, the Commons Project, the non-profit behind the pass, said.

  • This news comes as the pandemic continues to devastate the airline industry. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) expects the industry to collectively lose around $157 billion across 2020 and 2021.

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From December, five major global airlines will begin accepting a digital health pass that proves passengers don't have COVID-19.

Passengers on selected flights operated by United Airlines, Lufthansa, Virgin Atlantic, Swiss International Air Lines, and JetBlue can use the CommonPass certificate on their phones to show that they tested negative for the virus.

Proof of a negative COVID-19 status is a requirement to enter some countries, and can also cut quarantine periods. 

The pass — which will be eligible on some flights from New York, Boston, London, and Hong Kong — is designed as an international standard for verifying negative COVID-19 tests. It's created by The World Economic Forum and The Commons Project, a Swiss non-profit.

The Commons Project argues it's "not practical" for each country to implement different methods for verifying visitors' COVID-19 status. 

Test results are often recorded on pieces of paper "from unknown labs, often written in languages foreign to those inspecting them," the project says, with no standard format. Vaccination records are often listed on paper cards, which can be easily forged, it says.

The pass "is the kind of concrete, swift, cross-sector collaboration needed to enable a unified action to restore confidence in travel," Christoph Wolff, head of mobility at the World Economic Forum, said.

"Siloed efforts will only create more confusion and hinder the industry's recovery," he added.

The groups say the pass could also be used to show that someone has received a COVID-19 vaccine, and could be rolled out on cruises and at hotels.

This news comes as the pandemic continues to devastate the airline industry. On Tuesday, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said it expects the industry to collectively lose around $157 billion because of the pandemic, including $118.5 billion in 2020 alone. 

Airlines are expected to "bleed cash" at least until the fourth quarter of 2021, IATA CEO Alexandre de Juniac warned.

But increased testing, as well as the roll-out of a vaccine, could replace quarantine requirements and aid the return of international tourism.

Read more: Singapore Airlines is betting on the US with new routes despite a COVID surge — here's why the airline is expanding now

United Airlines and Cathay Pacific Airways were the first airlines to trial the pass in October on flights between Hong Kong, Singapore, London, and New York.

After the successful trials, which were observed by government officials, the five airlines will become the first to roll out use of the pass on a wider scale.

"Ahead of a vaccine, ensuring customers understand the latest testing requirements to travel is vital to building consumer confidence and the CommonPass solution is an important step towards offering a common international standard," Corneel Koster, chief customer and operating officer at Virgin Atlantic, said.

The IATA has also been developing a similar digital health pass to record passengers' test results and vaccination status. The test will be piloted in 2020 and launched fully in early 2021, the group announced Monday.

On Monday, Australia's national airline Qantas said that proof of a COVID-19 vaccination will be compulsory for international air travel. No other airline has yet made a similar announcement.

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