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International Air Travel Is Closer to Restarting, Thanks to This App

Updated: Oct 30, 2020

By Jessica Puckett for Conde Nast Traveler | October 21, 2020

International air travel got a hopeful sign for recovery on Wednesday. The first transatlantic trial of Common Pass, an app that creates a standard digital format for COVID-19 test results, was successfully completed. 

Travelers aboard the United Airlines flight from London Heathrow airport to New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International volunteered to be part of the trial, which was the second-ever for Common Pass. The app is the result of a collaboration between the nonprofit organization Common Project, which designed the platform, and the World Economic Forum. Also involved with the initiative are Hong Kong airline Cathay Pacific, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, and the Centers for Disease Control.

“We’ve had a very close collaboration with both CBP and CDC,” Paul Meyer, CEO of Common Project, said in a press conference after the London to New York flight landed on Wednesday. “They were both observing the pilot and having discussions about where to go from here.”

As various countries, including the U.S., look at opening up air travel corridors to restart international travel, both governments and airlines are looking for a uniform way to evaluate COVID-19 results—and who is deemed safe to fly. The successful trial could be a good sign for one such air corridor between New York and London, which is reportedly under consideration by government officials. Instead of having fliers with various paper results, the app's standardized format makes it easier for officials and airline employees to read.

Here's how the platform works: Fliers download the app and go to a participating lab or test site for a COVID-19 screening of their choice (the platform is designed to support different types of tests). Travelers are given an online account by the lab where they’re tested. Through Common Pass, users can then log in to their respective lab’s system and pull their results into the app. “In the U.S. we’re connected to many of the largest labs here like Lab Corp,” Meyer said. The organization is also working to connect with major labs in London and Hong Kong. “We’re building up a network around the world of labs, and other healthcare sources, who are accredited or certified.”

The transatlantic flight follows Common Pass’ first-ever successful trial on a recent Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong to Singapore, where an air travel corridor was established earlier this month.

Even with the new app, countries will still be able to set their own testing and quarantine rules for travelers, but officials will be able to use a flier’s Common Pass account to determine whether they meet the current restrictions. The app’s founders also believe it could ease air passengers’ fears about potentially catching the virus in-flight. “You know if you’re on a plane, you know everyone has tested negative—you start wanting to travel again,” Christoph Wolff, head of mobility at the World Economic Forum, said at the media event.

On the heels of the successful trials, the team behind the project is planning on quick expansion. “We’re working with many additional large airlines, and planning additional routes across Europe, the Americas, Africa, Middle East, Asia, that we’re going to be rolling out in November and December for broad-scale deployment at the beginning of the year,” Meyer said.

Widespread use of the app would also mean the end of inconvenient paper certificates to present COVID-19 test results. The format of paper test results can be if vastly different formats—or even different languages—that airlines and border officials must parse. Some airlines also want to verify a passenger’s test results before allowing them to check-in, meaning online check-in is not possible for those with paper certificates. Common Pass is also able to link a traveler’s identification with the identity collected at the testing site, eliminating the possibility of forging a test result, Meyer said.

Another advantage? Many privacy concerns would be eliminated, according to Meyer. “The other thing that’s important is the privacy preserving aspects of this model,” he said. “We don’t believe that people should have to hand over their personal health information to either an airline or a government, just because they want to travel. The way we designed Common Pass and the framework is to allow the health information to stay within the individual's control.” The platform verifies a passenger has been tested, but the information is not stored or passed along to any other third party.

Common Pass can also work for crossing borders via ground transportation, and it can be utilized to show vaccination records as well, once there is a vaccine widely available. The app is free to download, and Meyer promises it will always remain a free service.

Volunteers on Wednesday’s trial showed their results in Common Pass to airline and other officials prior to departure from Heathrow and again upon landing in Newark. “From a user perspective: very, very simple process,” said J.D. O’Hara, one of the flight volunteers and CEO of Internova Travel Group. “Within 30 minutes [after the test], our results were uploaded on the Common Pass app.” The volunteers then went through immigration at Heathrow, showing a QR code with their name and passport number in the app to the border official. Upon landing, fliers showed the same QR code at immigration and customs in Newark.

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