Monday will be a massive day for the United States travel industry. On November 8, 2021, the U.S. will reopen for international non-essential travel, ending a two-year tourism ban during the Covid-19 pandemic.
To reopen safely, the country is imposing a vaccine mandate for foreign visitors. As a recent Presidential Proclamation states, “it is in the interests of the United States to move away from the country-by-country restrictions previously applied during the Covid-19 pandemic and to adopt an air travel policy that relies primarily on vaccination to advance the safe resumption of international air travel to the United States.”
The United States will require foreign adult travelers to be fully vaccinated with a World Health Organization-approved vaccine. Children under age 18 are exempt, as vaccine availability is still limited in many countries. In addition, all incoming foreign visitors and returning U.S. residents must have a negative result from a Covid test result taken within 72 hours before arriving into the U.S.
Implementing these changes will be challenging, not least of all because there remains no global standard for screening travelers’ Covid records during the pandemic. “It is still a bit of the Wild West, as far as it goes with verification of health status and travel,” says Sherry Stein, head of technology for the Americas at the Société Internationale de Télécommunications Aéronautiques (SITA), a multinational information technology company providing services to the vast majority of the world’s airlines and airports.
Just as U.S. has lagged behind much of the world in lifting its travel ban, the country is taking a very different approach to how to screen incoming travelers’ Covid documentation. While most already-open countries have developed a national digital solution for travelers to provide their vaccine and testing information, the U.S. is instead putting the onus for Covid-credential vetting on the airlines.
“The airlines right now are the ones seen as as being the ultimate decision makers, in what approach they choose to take in order to meet the requirements,” says Stein. “Every airline is doing its own thing, they’re finding their own way.”
That means travelers coming to the U.S. will submit Covid-related documentation not to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) but to their airline. Delta Air Lines has its Delta FlyReady solution, United has incorporated requirements into the United app, while American Airlines is using VeriFLY. Some airlines are embracing wider digitization, so, for example, “if the traveler has a pass like an IATA Travel Pass or the Common Pass they can link that to the airline system,” says Stein.
Last week at a U.S. travel event, Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian warned that travelers should be prepared for long lines when the U.S. lifts restrictions on November 8. “It’s going to be a bit sloppy at first. I can assure you, there will be lines, unfortunately,” he said, “but we’ll get it sorted out.”
“We’re going to have a good surge of demand, but in order to keep that surge up we’re going to need to make it easier and easier for people to figure out what the documentation requirements are,” said Bastian.
Like Bastian, Stein is also expecting a very messy re-opening on Monday and the near future. “Before Covid, the trouble that we were facing as an industry was how to how to manage the continued doubling of passenger volumes, because the airport infrastructure wasn’t prepared to scale to support that,” says Stein. “Now, it’s how do we deal with the wait times for all of these manual, paper-laden processes with or without Covid? Because you still have to check visas and passports, you still have to do all these things.”
“The expectation is that we could see wait times of up to eight hours,” says Stein, citing a prediction from the International International Air Transport Association (IATA), a trade association of the world’s airlines. “That number is being touted by IATA as an expectation that if traffic resumes to the pre-Covid numbers because already the processing time per passenger has gone from one to two minutes to 16 minutes or more.”
It remains to be seen whether the United States government will eventually assume the responsibility for verifying Covid vaccination and testing credentials, but Stein thinks that would be the right approach. “We think that the better way to go is that this digitization really lies with the government in the same way that it does for any other border entry-exit decision, right?” she says. “Because the border agency, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, makes the decision on whether you’re allowed to enter the country as a foreign visitor, that you’re not on a watch list or a threat list, that you’ve got the appropriate visa file, etcetera.”
SITA has worked with governments like Aruba to develop secure travel credentials using blockchain that do not share private health information. For travelers, the big advantage of a national verification system is shorter wait times in airports and at other ports of entry.
As an example close to home, anyone entering Canada has to download the country’s ArriveCAN app. Travelers upload their passport information and Covid documentation before arriving at the airport and other ports of entry, so they know in advance whether they have the necessary credentials to get a green light to enter.
“The mandatory digital submission of information via the ArriveCAN app prior to entry to Canada has helped travelers understand their eligibility and travel requirements, and reduced the need for travelers to provide paper documentation to Border Services Officers (BSOs) on arrival,” said André Gagnon, a spokesperson for the Public Health Agency of Canada, via email. “This has served to reduce wait times at the border and minimize the risk of transmission by limiting in-person contact between travelers and BSOs.”
It could be argued that the U.S. has been far less nimble on this front because, unlike Canada, the U.S. does not have a centralized health system. “We don’t have a ministry of health for the United States, as many other countries do. And so we can’t divert that information to the ministry of health to be vetted or verified. That lies with the CBP and/or CDC to come to an agreement on how they’ll manage that process in determining whether health status is applicable in making the entry-exit decision,” says Stein. “Technology is not the limiting factor.”
Should the U.S. decide to switch course, Stein says there is already an app that could be adapted for health documentation vetting. In collaboration with US Customs and Border Protection, SITA developed the Mobile Passport Control app for entry into the United States. The app directs travelers to a digital form where they upload passport information. “And CBP makes the decision that you’re okay to enter, whether you need secondary screening, and there are already questions on there about health,” says Stein. “That form is absolutely customizable, that it could support the same types of questions in order to address Covid exposure.”
In the meantime, international travelers should be prepared for a bumpy arrival into the U.S. “Hopefully, on November 8, we will all have nothing but good news to report,” Stein says. “But I really think, yeah, wait times are going to be bad.”