Coronavirus: Can a global app for travel standards get us back up in the air?

CommonPass is a platform to navigate new travel rules while documenting a person’s Covid-19 status

Passengers board on Easyjet airplane at the Amsterdam-Schiphol Airport, The Netherlands, on  July 1, 2020.  EasyJet airlines resume flights to and from Amsterdam-Schiphol Airport after a period of no flying due to the coronavirus. - Netherlands OUT
 / AFP / ANP / Remko DE WAAL
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Would you get on a plane right now? Do you even know if you can or where you are allowed to go? What about the rules once you arrive?

There should be an app for that.

That's what The Commons Project, a US non-profit public trust supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, is trying to do.

"If there's a different system from every point of origin to every destination, then it's just going to be chaos," Paul Meyer, chief executive of The Commons Project, tells The National.

His venture is working to bring the chaos to heel under a single system: a standard global platform to document a person's Covid-19 status and inform them of the requirements to cross international borders, such as testing and quarantine.

The platform, called CommonPass, is being built for Apple and Android devices – and it has some big backers. The chief executive of National Aviation Services, which operates 45 airports in the Mena region and emerging markets, is a trustee and vocal supporter. The World Economic Forum is a strategic partner. Cathay Pacific, the Hong Kong flag carrier, and the governments of Japan, which will host the Olympics next year, and Bangladesh, which has millions of citizens to safely repatriate, are part of talks to get CommonPass off the ground.

There really is a need and an opportunity to create a common framework to enable the resumption of travel in a safe way

Countries around the world are racing to contain the pandemic while simultaneously restarting and reopening business activity – and travel plays a pivotal role, making up a little more than a tenth of the world’s economy.

The pandemic has been devastating to the industry. Emirates, the world's biggest long-haul airline, processed nearly 650,000 refund requests – worth Dh1.9 billion – in the past two months, and says it still has half a million more to work through.

Reopening borders and allowing international travel to resume is part of the healing process, one that requires protecting public health. Already, countries are beginning to develop bilateral or regional agreements to allow some travel to resume, often referred to as "travel bubbles" or corridors.

But a lack of co-ordination among governments and airlines threatens the long-term health of aviation and presents a logistical nightmare for travellers. The International Air Transport Association, a major lobby group that represents 82 per cent of global carriers, is a proponent of a common framework.

"We would like to see all countries around the world adopting similar measures," Muhammad Albakri, VP Africa & Middle East at IATA, tells The National. He says a patchwork plan would be "scary", and "too costly and too complex" to operate for airlines.

"Air travel has been built over the past 100 years on a collective set of agreements that have been agreed worldwide," he says. "It's a system that works, no matter where you fly, no matter where you depart, where you arrive.

"We need to maintain this collective agreement and this collective thinking when it comes to the post-Covid-19 travel restart. Otherwise, the restart will take for ever."

Unlike the vision for so-called "immunity passports", which have been criticised for relying on specious antibody tests and are not applicable to the majority of the global population, CommonPass will work like sorting out one's visa.

In the same way governments have agreements for citizens to cross borders, some at a cost, CommonPass will maintain an updated database of who can travel where and what the rules are to comply with Covid-19 precautions once they arrive. A CommonPass user can see what the testing and quarantine requirements are for their destination, locate a government-approved testing centre nearby, and see and share the results of their test using a QR code.

“There are some things you don't want an individual government or a tech company to build. And there really is a need and an opportunity to create a common framework to enable the resumption of travel in a safe way,” Meyer says.

The interface is being built by global design consultancy Ideo.

CommonPass faces a mix of opportunity and challenge to be widely adopted, Christoph Wolff, head of mobility industries at the World Economic Forum, says.

"The main challenge is the lack of scientific consensus around immunity and the fact that research on vaccines and effective treatments is still ongoing," he tells The National.

In the meantime, he says countries are likely to rely on the verification of someone’s Covid-19 status in order to allow citizens to travel. A standardised model for sharing that health data around the world in a way that protects a person's privacy is exactly what CommonPass is aiming to achieve.

The task is "challenging but critical to restore travel", Wolff says.

But if it can be done – a big if – CommonPass would help rebuild a more resilient travel industry. Wolff says it is a "tremendous opportunity to reshape future of travel".