Protecting The Travel Bubble With Technology

Coronavirus and aviaiton

New vocabulary has reached global consciousness in 2020. The additions to this year’s dictionary paint a grim, dystopian image from the “new normal” to the more realistic and still disliked “social distance.”

However, in the last few weeks, individuals who have a strong urge to travel have met cautious optimism from governments and businesses hoping to recover from the economic damage caused by Covid-19 and are learning their fair share of new terms.

“Travel bubbles,” “travel corridors” or “air bridges” are words used recently to define formal agreements between governments that allow travellers to circumvent strict quarantine measures based on the countries they are travelling between. It is an easy but effective plan to help combat the possibility of another increase in COVID-19 outbakes, in particular the second wave of passengers arriving from high-risk regions.

As exciting as this sounds, the practicality of maintaining these bubbles is full of technical, operational and governmental challenges.

Safer, Well Controlled Zones

While countries begin to loosen restrictions on travel, they will be careful not to cause Covid-19 cases to rebound. Governments, however, will want to be tentative about opening up their borders and may even adopt an individualized approach based on the risk level for each destination and route.

Where the risk of the virus is minimal, we are starting to see specific regions wanting to allow movement within safe zones first, such as the trans-Tasman bubble among Australia and New Zealand, which is being examined. This will allow travel between countries within a certain region, although it may still be subject to significant health checks and careful monitoring to avoid the risk of further outbreaks.

There are also countries deemed to be at greater risk, where travel corridors may be limited to certain groups of travellers or under strict conditions, such as the Singapore-China ‘fast lane’ corridor. Such restricted travel corridors would require a certain amount of movement for sensitive travel, including supported business travel.

All models require an approach that’s driven by information, information that’s based on real-time data and can cope with rapidly changing environments.

Layered Approach

Several governments take a stratified approach to border control, beginning well in advance of any travel. If they are able to identify high-risk passengers and restrict their movement, this will allow airports and airlines to ease some of the lower-risk passenger measures at the airport.

There are four important steps in this stratified approach:

The first is the process of obtaining a visa or travel authorisation, where travellers apply to enter a country. We can see that this requirement may increase as a result of a pandemic and that health information, or health declarations, will be included in these checks up until the moment of departure. Travelers will be asked to verify where they will be residing during the visit, and travel within the country may be limited in order to minimize the risk of transport to higher risk areas. This also benefits passengers by providing clarity and allowing them to schedule their journey.

The second step concerns the collection of Advance Passenger Information (API) and travel booking data, or PNR data as it is called, from airlines prior to travel. This allows the government to carry out further risk assessments, including whether travellers are arriving from high-risk areas. We do not see health information incorporated into this data in the short term, but this may be something that will happen in the future. This will require governments to work with airlines to determine standards in this area.

Risk Assessment

The third, and perhaps most important stage is at check-in, where the government could pre-clear a passenger to travel in real-time. Governments that have Advance Passenger Processing or an integrated API solution in place could deny boarding to passengers who are deemed to be at high risk or, for example, have not completed the mandatory health declaration.

We have all supported governments around the world in their process to adapt their Advance Passenger Processing Pre-Clearance Checks in response to COVID-19. For example, during the early weeks of the pandemic, we supported governments to stop passengers from high-risk countries from checking into their flights, restricting the spread of the virus.

The final step takes place upon arrival at the destination airport or the border control point. At the airport terminal, we would expect specific lanes and social distancing management to ensure that passengers from separate routes or separate risk levels do not come into contact with one another.

Passengers deemed lower risk should be able to move through the airport and across the border in a smooth, low-touch manner, using biometrics and mobile technologies, without the need for a lengthy immigration queue that could add to the risk. Travelers using limited corridors may be asked to perform additional screening or testing upon arrival.

Governments may also use the information gathered to provide passenger outreach assistance by identifying passengers who may have come into contact with someone with COVID-19 during their journey.

For example, governments will have details on where passengers were sitting on the plane, as well as their contact information to monitor them and encourage them to isolate or go for further testing if it’s found they were sitting near someone who was later identified as having COVID-19. The risk status of the route can also be re-assessed in real-time using this data, allowing countries to react quickly if another outbreak occurs.

Trust And Collaboration

Cooperation among governments, airports and airlines will be critical for the effectiveness of travel corridors. We must trust each other to ensure that risks are managed efficiently, and that real-time data is available in order to respond quickly to issues which may arise.

Standards are also important to ensure all parties are working in the same way and data privacy is protected. These technologies will be handling highly sensitive information, including data about people’s health, and therefore we need to ensure all shared data has a legitimate use, is encrypted and is only retained for as long as is necessary.

Although flying in 2020 and beyond will be a different experience than we have become accustomed too, there is some hope that the new world will lead us all towards a future of safe and smooth air travel.

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