When United Airlines flight UA15 takes off into the western skies on Wednesday morning, passengers will be pioneering a new kind of travel that offers a semblance of hope for beleaguered jetsetters as the pandemic rages.
A scheme that offers a prototype “health passport” will be introduced for travellers as part of plans to standardise a safer system for flying as regulators and governments struggle daily with the challenges posed by rising infection rates.
The United offer of tickets to registered users of the health passport is part of a World Economic Forum (WEF) initiative that was developed by the start-up Commons Project. The Swiss-based body is helping to launch a ‘CommonPass’ that aims to restore cross-border travel to pre-pandemic levels by allowing people to have a document that shows their Covid status, whether tested, or - in due course - vaccinated.
Passengers flying the route between Heathrow and Newark, New Jersey, will use a digital health document that will see them tested at the airport 72 hours before flying, as well as filling in a health-screening questionnaire required by US border control.
The results will be logged on a smartphone app which can be scanned by airline staff and border officials without the need for multiple separate documents. US Customs and Border Protection and the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention have agreed to work with the scheme and examine how the pilot works with the potential for broadening it out to mainstream travellers.
The move is part of plan to revive travel to and from Britain’s busiest airport. Heathrow has seen passenger numbers plummet, with just 1.2 million travellers passing through last month, an 82 per cent drop on the previous year.
“For some time now, Heathrow has been calling for the creation of a common international standard and cross-border pilots as these could help governments across the world and industry unlock the benefits of testing in aviation,” said Mark Burgess, process improvement director at Heathrow.
Global airlines are expected to burn through another $77 billion of cash in the second half of 2020 as the decline in revenue outpaces cost savings and various government wage subsidy programmes start to expire, according to the International Air Transport Association (Iata)
The average carrier now has 8.5 months worth of cash left for operations, Iata said earlier this month. In the second quarter of the year, airlines used up an estimated $51bn of cash reserves as the Covid-19 pandemic decimated air travel demand.
Governments have provided airlines with a lifeline of more than $162bn and another $20bn to suppliers in financial support so far to survive the Covid-19 pandemic.
Meanwhile, the pandemic-induced downturn in air traffic could threaten 46 million jobs worldwide, according to a September 30 report by Air Transport Action Group.
Britain’s Department of Transport said it was working closely with the airline, travel, healthcare and testing sectors to come up with a solution. “We hope to develop measures as quickly as possible to support the recovery of the travel sector,” said a spokeswoman.
The WEF is concerned that the “patchwork of policies” on border entry and health screening during Covid-19 could undermine public confidence in air travel and lead to an industry-wide collapse, as well as affecting international business.
The UK government has set up a taskforce to examine testing proposals put forward by the airline industry to reduce quarantine times for travellers from 14 days, but it has been accused of being too slow.
The CommonPass has already been trialled in the Asia Pacific by Cathay Pacific on flights between Hong Kong and Singapore. Tickets for services between the two cities have shot up in price as the offer has proved popular among customers.
An alternative option is being offered to travellers to other destinations using a Heathrow Airport hotel, which is launching a deal that includes a room, breakfast and Covid-19 test for people wanting to fly without extra quarantine.
Surinder Arora, who runs a family-owned hotel chain that mainly caters for business travellers, has joined other hoteliers in urging the government to increase Covid-19 tests and ease quarantine requirements.
He has introduced an initiative that from this week will see London Heathrow’s Sofitel Hotel in Terminal 5 charge £199 for a room, breakfast and coronavirus saliva test, produced by Imperial College London, in a bid to boost business travel. “You’ll receive your test result first thing in the morning,” Mr Arora, 62, said. “If it’s negative, you can have breakfast and fly.”
The billionaire hotelier’s innovation comes as he attempts to make up for a steep drop in revenue from the mass cancellation of conferences and trade shows since the March lockdown.
Mr Arora hopes his innovation will restore some of his group’s £200m annual revenue, “that has gone to zero, it’s devastating”.