As air travel continues to be impacted by the turbulence of restart and recovery, health and safety remain at the center of efforts to get more passengers in the air and to keep borders open.
Airlines and industry bodies have called for the integration of systematic testing into the international travel process. Passengers are also getting behind the idea, with 84% agreeing that testing should be required of all travelers, and 88% saying that they’re willing to undergo testing as part of the travel process, according to a recent IATA public poll.
Passenger health and border management
This effort can be supported by digital border technology, which provides passenger information in advance, including digital health declarations. The information allows governments to approve travel and boarding based on a passenger’s health status – including, potentially, the results of testing. This will help reduce lines, with low-risk passengers handled in a seamless, low-touch way using biometrics.
Throughout the journey
As I’ve said before, governments need to take a layered approach to border management starting well in advance of travel to deliver the most effective results. If they can identify high-risk passengers and limit their travel, this will help airports and airlines to relax measures for lower risk passengers at the airport.
Governments have been identifying high-risk passengers for decades in their fight against transnational crime, but the practice is now equally applicable to protecting the health of their citizens.
Passenger information can also provide a powerful tool once travel is over. It can facilitate rapid ‘contact tracing’ – a term which has now entered our everyday vocabulary, describing a public health measure for the control of infections. Contact tracing aims to identify any passengers who may have been exposed to the COVID-19 virus during their travel.
Contact tracing showed great potential during Africa’s Ebola outbreak between 2014–2016, when governments began showing interest in identifying where incoming travelers had been. The same was true of the SARS outbreak of 2002 and the MERS outbreak a decade later.
Contact tracing in the drive to restart travel
Contact tracing is vital to help avoid the catastrophic economic impact of closed borders and the prevention of recurring waves of the COVID-19. Speed is of the essence. The effectiveness of contact tracing, according to ‘The Lancet’ medical journal, depends entirely on rapidly finding people who may have become infected, to halt any further spread.
It demands fast collaboration between border and health authorities, along with significant resources. And it needs to be supported by quick and accurate testing.
Governments around the world are struggling to ramp up these resources. Experts have estimated that governments should hire one contact tracer for every 5,000 inhabitants. However, 9,000 tracers took on the containment challenge in Wuhan, China, where the outbreak began. That’s around one for every 1,200 inhabitants.
It’s been a familiar story globally as governments recruit civilian armies of contact tracers to grapple with the task of swiftly identifying and prioritizing people who may be infected, including their travel and recent daily activities.
Information gathering – overcoming the shortfalls
Sophisticated border management systems can give contact tracers the crucial information they need in seconds, overcoming the shortfalls of other methods in play today.
Those shortfalls include disparate approaches, passengers’ lack of familiarity with forms, and the fact that some forms are paper-based, making them hard to analyze. Also, electronic forms must be aligned and integrated into travel industry processes, or they’ll not achieve the necessary coverage.
Mobile and apps
Then there’s the use of mobile devices and apps to record close contacts, which we’ve heard about a lot in the press. The drawback is that they’re not universal; nor are they consistent and interoperable globally. More than that, people need to find the right app, they need the right mobile device and they need to keep the app up to date themselves. And of course, they don’t work when airplane mode is on.
Key answers for contact tracers: Advance Passenger Information and PNR
Given these scenarios, we need to remember that countries already have a wealth of digital information collected by law, in the form of Advance Passenger Information (API), or interactive API, and Passenger Name Record (PNR) data. These provide key answers for contact tracers, with the help of some cross-agency collaboration.
Well established globally, API and PNR include information such as the full identity of each passenger, their flight itinerary, baggage, seating information, and contact details. The combination of these data sources provides great value.
A sophisticated border management system will enable governments and health authorities to answer essential questions in support of contact tracing for travel, such as their travel history, recent flights, who was traveling with them, who was within two seats of them, and contact details.
Tracing at speed
With SITA’s system, for instance, authorized users can search hundreds of passengers at once, in seconds, supported by intelligent name matching to identify slight variations in names. This is thanks to leading name-matching and artificial intelligence technology, no matter what the language, be it Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic script, Greek, Hungarian, or any other.
They can then match medical patient names against traveler names. Armed with the information they need – gathered at speed, with great accuracy, and with a view on immediate priorities – contact tracers can then quickly embark on outreach activities to contain the spread of the virus.
A standard approach, globally
Health authorities are now looking to border management systems like SITA’s to gather more and more information about passengers, as they aim to know more about travelers in advance.
But if we’re going to keep borders open and get people flying again, to enable economic recovery, then it’s vital that governments’ border and health agencies have access to this level of passenger information now, in a standard digital way wherever they may be in the world.