Reconnecting the world
Travel bubbles, health passports and new touchless technology are all set to play a role in facilitating aviation’s recovery from COVID-19, writes Joe Bates.
With traffic numbers still significantly down on pre-pandemic levels and airlines understandably reluctant to launch new routes in such a tough operating climate, the aviation industry remains very much in survival mode, although initiatives such as travel bubbles and digital health passports offer hope for better times ahead.
Both options, of course, offer passengers the chance to once again enjoy what most of us have taken for granted all our lives – the opportunity to safely travel between two different countries without having to undergo a period of quarantine or self-isolation at one or both ends of the journey.
The recently opened Trans-Tasman travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand (more of this below) has shown what can be done to allow the safe resumption of quarantine-free flights between two different countries.
If all goes to plan, it will be followed by a travel bubble between Singapore and Hong Kong in the not too distant future, although proposals to introduce it in late May were unfortunately put on hold due to rising COVID-19 numbers in Singapore.
Compared to the Australia-New Zealand version, the plans for the Singapore-Hong Kong travel bubble are somewhat modest with initially only around 200 seats a day expected to be offered in each direction, but it will be a major step forward for both near neighbours and their respective hubs – Singapore Changi (SIN) and Hong Kong International Airport (HKG).
Meanwhile, the clamour for digital health passports that show that passengers are fit to travel appears to be growing, with a number of different players driving the development of health apps.
Initiatives such as these – supported, and in many cases made possible by the raft of new health measures and touchless self-service technology introduced by airports since the outbreak of the global pandemic – ensure that the light at the end of tunnel is beginning to get a bit brighter for the beleaguered aviation industry.
Trans-Tasman Travel Bubble
In April, airports in Australia and New Zealand celebrated the re-opening of quarantine-free Trans-Tasman travel for Australian and New Zealand nationals for the first time in 12 months.
And such has been the success of the move to date that at the time of going to press, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, was set to meet Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, to discuss the possibility of allowing vaccinated international travellers from around the world to board these flights.
The launch of the Trans-Tasman travel bubble on April 19 was pretty much met with widespread delight in Australia and New Zealand.
Brisbane Airport (BNE) opened 16 ‘Green Lane’ services to accommodate Air New Zealand and Qantas flights between Brisbane and Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.
The airport reported that all eight arrivals and eight departures operated at around 80% capacity with more than 1,600 seats being sold.
Brisbane Airport Corporation CEO, Gert-Jan de Graaff, called the travel bubble between the two countries “vitally important for the thousands of businesses in Brisbane, the regions, and across Queensland who rely on tourism”.
In 2019, around 1.5 million passengers flew between BNE and New Zealand, with more than 100 flights each week and five airlines operating services to five New Zealand cities (Auckland, Christchurch, Wellington, Dunedin, and Queenstown).
Elsewhere in Australia on April 19, Perth Airport handled its first flight from Auckland under the new safe travel arrangements, and passengers who made the journey were welcomed by a traditional Aboriginal Welcome to Country and many excited meeters and greeters ready to be united with loved ones after over a year apart.
Kevin Brown, CEO of Perth Airport, called the milestone “a big step for Western Australia’s COVID-19 recovery”, noting that one new international route can add at least A$70 million into the local economy.
Pre-Covid, tourism was a key economic driver in Western Australia, generating more than 100,000 jobs and injecting A$12 billion into the Western Australian economy.
The airport has established a ‘Green Zone’ to facilitate passengers from ports deemed safe by the Australian Government (currently only to passengers from New Zealand) through the inbound journey to the public Arrivals hall.
This includes the separation of ‘Red Zone’ and ‘Green Zone’ Border Control queuing areas/Smart Gate and Baggage Reclaim belts. Red Zone flights (flights arriving from all other international destinations) would only be able to arrive once a Green Zone flight has completed the arrivals process.
Meanwhile in New Zealand on April 19, passengers arriving in Queenstown from Sydney enjoyed a warm welcome that included live music, prizes from more than 95 Queenstown and Wanaka businesses, and entertainment in the airport forecourt.
Queenstown Airport Corporation (QAC) chair, Adrienne Young-Cooper said: “It was an emotional moment watching the Qantas flight make its approach to the airport this afternoon. The region has been hit hard by COVID-19 and Aussie visitors are really important to us. We welcome them back with open arms.”
While QAC chief executive, Colin Keel, enthused: “We were thrilled to mark the re-opening of the Trans-Tasman border and the first quarantine-free flight from Australia. It goes without saying that many of us in Queenstown, Wanaka and the wider region have been hanging on for the reopening of the border with Australia. It’s a vital step towards recovery.”
Prior to COVID-19, 30% of all passenger arrivals and departures at Queenstown Airport were on Trans-Tasman flights. In 2019, 716,908 passengers arrived and departed on the direct Australia flights.
Digital health passports
Several solutions have already entered the market from various suppliers, including AOKpass, CommonPass, IATA Travel Pass, IBM Digital Health Pass and VeriFLY, just to name a few.
All enable users to create a ‘digital passport’ to receive COVID test results and verify they are eligible to undertake their journey.
As briefly reported in the last issue of Asia-Pacific Airports magazine, in a hugely pioneering initiative, Hong Kong International Airport (HKG) successfully conducted the trial of digital health passes on a flight between Hong Kong and Los Angeles.
In the trial, Cathay Pacific air crew members role-played as passengers and took the COVID-19 test at HKG’s testing centre, with their test results sent to their mobile phones in the form of a digital health pass which were presented to the airline staff for check-in.
Upon arrival at LAX, the role-playing passengers presented their digital health pass to local staff for validation and entered Los Angeles successfully.
Designed to provide a simple and efficient means of checking and verifying health documents at both ends of a passenger journey, the trial was conducted in conjunction with Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Cathay Pacific, The Commons Project, one of the major digital health pass developers for international travel, and Prenetics, a COVID-19 test provider.
Airport Authority Hong Kong (AAHK) executive director of airport operations, Vivian Cheung, said: “Resumption of air travel in a safe way is our top priority. Traffic recovery is hard to be sustainable with manual handling of the paper records without error to match the requirements of each country, which could also be changed from time to time.
“We will continue to work with the industry partners including the government of Hong Kong to make Hong Kong one of the first airports in the world to adopt digital health pass solutions.”
As if to prove the point, it was recently announced that the SITA supported AOKpass will be utilised to support the launch of the Hong Kong-Singapore travel bubble when it finally happens.
AAHK adds that it has been collaborating with major hub airports around the world to facilitate the adoption of digital solutions to tackle challenges such as trustworthiness of paper reports, diversified and dynamic entry requirements across countries and regions, long queues for passengers for document check, and labour-intensive checking duties for airline staff.
In the same pioneering vein, Etihad Airways can claim to have been the first airline to use the IATA Travel Pass – which ratifies the travel health credentials of passengers – when it trialled the app on flights from Abu Dhabi to Chicago, New York, Washington DC and Toronto between mid-April and May 31.
Both Etihad and IATA are hoping that it will simplify the travel process and end the current congestion at airports caused by the need to ensure that passengers have been vaccinated and are free from COVID-19.
Etihad Aviation Group’s chief operating officer, Mohammad Al Bulooki, said: “With the dynamically changing health requirements for travel, Etihad believes that a digital health passport solution will provide additional clarity and ease for travellers.
“Etihad has partnered with IATA so that together, a globally unified approach to a travel pass can be simplified to make travel easier once governments decide what regulations are required to cross borders in either direction.”
Other Asia-Pacific based airlines trialling or set to trial the IATA Travel Pass include Air New Zealand, Emirates, Gulf Air, Japan Airlines, Korean Air, Malaysia Airlines, Philippine Airlines, Qantas, Qatar Airways, Saudia, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways, Thai Smile and Vietjet Air.com
Will passengers accept digital health passports?
New research by Amadeus indicates that 90% of travellers would be comfortable using a digital health passport for future travel.
Indeed, the study, commissioned by Amadeus and conducted in Asia, Europe and North America by Censuswide, claims that 41% of travellers were keen to book an international trip within six weeks of restrictions lifting.
Decius Valmorbida, president, travel, Amadeus, says: “There is no doubt that COVID-19 will continue
to shape the way we travel for the months ahead, just as it influences so many other areas of our lives. Yet, while there are still uncertainties, research like this reinforces my optimism that we will build back travel better than before.
“Collaboration across governments and our industry is the key to restarting travel, as we deliver on traveller expectations outlined in this Rebuild Travel digital health survey, deploying the right technology to enable a truly connected and contactless journey.”