The tech startup trying to restore our faith in COVID-free air travel

October 7, 2020, 3:59 AM UTC

The prospect of jetting off to global conferences and meetings seems like a lost world these days, and so far, there is no obvious path back to it.

But beginning Thursday, a tech startup will begin testing a digital solution on Cathay Pacific and United Airlines, in London, New York, Singapore and Hong Kong—one that claims it’ll finally get us flying again, and offer a glimmer of hope that the old normal might not have vanished forever.

In the first attempt at a global travel system for COVID-19, Cathay passengers who have volunteered to trial the system flying from Hong Kong to Singapore and London Heathrow will be able to scan QR codes, as they check into their flights and go through passport control, using a platform called CommonPass. The code will show that they comply with whatever other coronavirus rules are in place. United joins the trial later this month, with a trial using passengers flying from Newark International Airport to Heathrow. And CommonPass is planning to roll out the system in 15 other countries over the next few months. 

“Everyone was talking about the problem, but no one was coming forward with the solution,” says Paul Meyer, CEO of The Commons Project in New York, a non-profit tech company which calls itself a “public trust,” and which built CommonPass; its mission statement is to create “digital solutions for the common good.” Meyer joined forces with the World Economic Forum in Geneva to launch CommonPass, and recruited Alan Warren, a former Google veep for engineering who had built Google Sheets and Google Docs, to create the platform.

At least on screen, the system is simple. Each government uploads its COVID-19 requirements into a standard format. Passengers check a registry of medical labs that are CommonPass-enabled and find the one nearby that offers a coronavirus test, and hopefully at some point a vaccine; testing labs at airports will also be linked to the platform. Then, before flying, you upload the test results to the app, which automatically converts it into a QR code certifying you are good to travel. You scan the QR when you book a plane ticket, and the system will match the details with the country to which you are headed. The QR scan also works to pass through immigration—showing the border officials only that you are eligible to pass, without revealing any health details.

The CommonPass QR code will be able to inform airport officials whether air travelers meet local COVID-19 health requirements. Photo courtesy of The Commons Project.

More than 20 countries

The system was tested on Kenya’s borders earlier this year, when the pandemic caused epic traffic jams, as truckers underwent health checks. As Meyer and Warren began tweaking CommonPass, it became clear that dozens of countries might want to use the same system. 

In July, Meyer convened an online meeting of airlines and government officials from across the world, most of whom seemed keen to try it out. “We have more than 20 countries now signed up to the next wave,” Meyer says. “It doesn’t work if it is just one corridor or bubble.” There have been tentative discussions with officials of the Tokyo Olympics Committee about how to screen ticket holders for the Summer Games next July (postponed from this year). And Saudi health officials have discussed possibly using CommonPass to vet the giant crowds of pilgrims traveling for the Haj; until the pandemic, about a million people made the trip to Mecca every year, in the world’s biggest single travel event. Warren, the ex-Google engineer, says those numbers would not be a problem for the platform. “It can handle tens of millions of people,” he says.

Meyer, who founded The Commons Project Foundation last year, says that as they began building the coronavirus platform, they realized that the confounding tangle of regulations was a major obstacle to reviving travel. Each country has imposed its own quarantine period and testing rules, and frequently changes them, making it almost impossible for airlines and passengers to follow the rules. “If every country and airline has its own model it is impossibly complex. It creates chaos,” he says. CommonPass would aim to be a uniform, global travel system for the pandemic that could be continually updated. “What we have built is critical for people to return to normal, go to work, and travel again,” says Meyer.

A lifeline for airlines?

It might also, at least in theory, be one way to try to rescue the collapsed airline industry, which is in the midst of the worst crisis of its 100-year history. Meyer says numerous airlines have expressed interest in joining the platform.

Yet in the minds of some analysts, a digital QR system might not be able to solve the industry’s biggest problem: People’s strong reluctance to fly while the pandemic is raging, and before a vaccine becomes widely available.

Barely 30% of the world’s 24,000 or so commercial airplanes are currently flying: Even though very few countries are still under lockdown, there are simply no passengers to fill them. Air travel this quarter is expected to be about 70% below the same quarter in 2019, according to Mark Manduca, managing director covering airlines at Citi in London. He estimates it could take as long as until 2027 to return to last year’s levels of demand, when there were a record 926 million trips made on U.S. carriers.  

“You can tell me about QR codes and testing,” Manduca says. “But it still does not remove the fact that you are going to come into contact with hundreds of people at the airport, the hotel, and so on,” he says. “The reason I don’t want to travel is because I want to limit my interactions.”

Manduca says one critical issue facing airlines is that people are booking last minute, not knowing whether they might face quarantines on their arrival or return, or whether testing requirements have changed. “About 40% of bookings now are during seven days before the flight,” he says. “That means if you are an airline you cannot plan.” Digital systems like CommonPass, he says, “It only exemplifies the problem rather than solving it.”

Meyer and Warren are not concerned. They say they remain focused on longer-term issues, and believe that the pandemic has changed the world’s travel needs, perhaps forever. Even when passengers begin flying in great numbers again—and even if that takes years—governments and airlines will need a uniform, global system to check passengers’ health status.

Now, they say, they have built one. “It is clear to us that this tsunami is not going back out to sea and getting back to normal quickly,” Warren says. “This is going to be with us for a while.”

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