Security in Travel: How to realistically open borders.

THERE are so many gaffes in aviation caused by unpreparedness and missteps that it is almost impossible to catalogue. The Covid-19 virus should have been treated at the outset as a security issue. The recovery is disjointed as the lack of common approaches to the pandemic especially in Asia Pacific are leading to mass confusion. Unfortunately this has severely curtailed international travel while not necessarily stopping the spread of the disease.

Since 9/11
the airline industry has made flying safe using a combination of physical
security and cyber security. Unfortunately the industry has not treated the
pandemic the same way. As it unfolded, seven critical mistakes were made:

Mistake #1: Assuming the pandemic is a temporary aberration, so measures put into place must be temporary. Willie Walsh as new IATA director general has made this point forcefully. He is plain wrong. The COVID-19 virus will still be circulating for many years. We must, therefore, take a permanent layered approach in mitigation. We must recognize that COVID-19 is not unique.

Mistake #2:  Lack of transparency of the true extent of Covid infections onboard airliners. Canada is a rarity in that it publishes weekly stats. China and Hong Kong sanction airlines for bringing in Covid-positive passengers. They name, shame and act. Why don’t all countries employ this simple and lifesaving effort? Management of the information has been terrible. Contact tracing has become largely ineffective. The travelling public needs transparency.

Mistake #3: Failing to understand that the adoption of vaccines will not be universal and not swift. Looking at travellers around the globe, studies show there is still significant hesitance or even resistance among flyers to getting vaccinated. The research from Deloitte’s State of the Consumer Tracker confirms that for the near term the combination of the unvaccinated and those who choose not to receive it are the majority. This is mirrored in the USA population as a whole, according to the US NPR/Marist data.

The conclusion to be drawn – that none of us can be fully safe from COVID-19 on planes, perhaps ever – is not a desirable public message for airlines.

Mistake #4: Failure to control borders. In Canada in the first quarter of 2021 there were 1,128 reported instances of flights arriving from international destinations with at least one Covid-positive passenger onboard and surprisingly fewer – 760 – instances on domestic flights.

What about departing countries, surely, they could be doing a better job? India has been consistently a leading exporter of the disease. Based on hard data of Canada flights, 11{2e54b6599e2852fcddcb96c51aef71201c0435684ebd8fbda55b4c693aab2644} of all Covid reported cases were nonstops from Delhi. That under-reports South Asia departing passengers connecting via the Gulf or Europe. In addition, testing results and vaccine certificate fraud has already arrived making the situation worse.

Mistake #5: Spreading the message that “flying is safe.” The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention disagrees. Let’s be clear – air travel spread the virus across borders. This misinformation has created a mistrust of flying and contributed to the disease’s impact. Open-source project Nextstrain has plotted the pathogen’s swift spread.

For air travel, 9/11 was a watershed moment. We changed overnight recognizing that air travel had to be secured. We have known since the outset that COVID-19 is deadly. Thus, preventing the spread and ensuring the safety of the passengers should have been priorities numbers one and two. Yet they weren’t and still aren’t. A warning – herd immunity may never be achieved.

Mistake #6: Failure to make aircraft and airports
Covid-free zones. They won’t be for some time. There is no universal testing on
departure or arrival. Hang your heads in shame airlines and regulators. The
challenge will be the problem of whether travellers are a danger. What happens
when we have “vaccine deniers,” “hesitants” and “not-yet-ers” who believe they
have the exact same right to board an aircraft as much as vaccine adopters?

Mistake #7:
Assuming
digital health apps are the silver bullet that will restore trust in the air
transportation system. Nearly 1.1 billion vaccine doses have been administered
to date worldwide. The majority of those have not been tracked. Regulation and
data privacy will prevent vaccine data from being easily shared. It will take a
long time to make that a reality. And all of the various apps suffer from three
basic problems:

  • There will be no universal standards for either
    vaccines or testing.
  • There is no broad trust and proof that can be
    delivered in the short term.
  • Human are responsible for the entering of the data
    and the interpretation.

Fixing it

Can we simply increase air transport security to re-open borders – safely and responsibly? I believe so. We need concepts designed for permanence while acknowledging that threat levels will fluctuate. For a safe flying environment to exist, we must stop Covid-positive transports; for now that is unrealistic, so testing on arrival must be the start. We need to have a geofence around the border. Even 21 day quarantine has proved to be fully adequate for preventing the spread of Covid. 

We need to uncouple the solution of a “safe arrival app” from building foundational travel corridors and bubbles. We must acknowledge COVID-19 immunity (in any one country sufficient to be considered safe) cannot exist, perhaps for years to come.

For nearly 17 months, the industry and regulators have floundered coming up with a plethora of “new” solutions. Existing mechanisms, processes and funding were woefully ignored for post-Covid recovery. No current system makes flying fully safe, other than shutting borders or quarantining all passengers for multiple weeks. Even then flying itself is not safe.

Instead, of this mass confusion, I am recommending a five-point layered approach to making air travel safe – for passengers, crew and for the destination – that is permanent and flexible without surrendering sovereignty.

  • A centralised approach to the border security where health, cyber-threat and physical security are treated equally.
  • A low-cost, real-time testing system needs to be in place at the border that can be administered by the in-country health authorities.
  • Transparent testing and tracing information needs to be widely distributed. 
  • Bi-lateral and multi-country agreements for each-way security must be negotiated step by step. Universal solutions are a long way off.
  • Common standards are needed for flight PNRs storing compliance and verification data.

After 9/11, airlines and authorities quickly came up with modifications to protocols and processes for ensuring that bad actors, either deliberately or accidently, didn’t transport weapons. We have been able to prevent danger to passengers/crew and from the aircraft being weaponised.

We need
that same centralised approach now. Health security must be treated similarly
as physical security, including background checks, pre-certification and not
forgetting enforcement processes.

Today, if
an airline brings an unauthorized person into a country, then it is fined
(typically $10,000 or equivalent) for each passenger and are also responsible
for re-patriating and housing costs. Let’s apply the same to COVID-positive
passengers. No changes needed.

Universal
testing on arrival needs to occur at the border until the inbound authority
determines (by departure point) the threat is low enough. Developing travel
corridors and bubbles is going to be hard. How many cross-border immigration
agreements exist? Surprisingly few. The U.S. has only 16 points from six
countries with pre-clearance. Since there is no universal solution, each
country must be responsible for its own self-determination of border security.

Technology and standards need to come together. There must be a common standard for flight PNR verification at check-in and boarding interfaced from a touchless or managed common API to the master host. Systems are in place today for stakeholders in air travel e.g. APIS.

Funding it

A
government-mandated fee on a ticket should be levied. If testing was uniformly
administered by each destination’s authorities, then the fee would be
palatable. Technology is now reducing the cost of reliable speedy testing to a
manageable +/-$10.

Countries
can set their own standards and deploy their own forms of testing. Pass, you
are admitted; Fail and you are not. If the airline transports you, they are
responsible for the fine. If you test positive with an imported variant of the
disease after you enter then an individual can be subject to sanctions. This
follows long established security protocols.

The five-point plan presented here is simple, straightforward and can be implemented without solving world peace. Airlines and regulators must become realistic about the challenges and try not to let perfect get in the way of good.

In summary, ending constant opening and shutting of borders, by implementing the five-point plan creates a transparent and executable program that can work for any country, recognizing border controls.

Countries
can also develop partnerships. It is universally trustable. As each country
controls its own levels of infection, restraints to inbound individual travel
can fall and international travel will rise.

It is
clear now that countries in the Asia Pacific region has more to lose by not
getting the cross border travel right. The recovery in China and the USA with
their vast domestic markets will not be so affected.

It is
vital that governments and airlines cooperate within their own borders with
sensible restrictions. Mandatory quarantines are not the answer. Nor are Health
Passports. Following the recommended 5 points here,  I believe will allow
borders to re-open without massive changes. Vaccinated flyers and trustworthy
documentation is essential. The governments have a responsibility to ensure
that their travellers to external locations are sufficiently informed to make
the right decisions. Ultimately we have to accept that this pandemic is the new
normal. Treating health security in the same manner as physical security is
paramount.

Failure to implement a solution can only continue to damage the sector and maintain the drain on each country’s treasury bailing out airlines. PLEASE do your part. Mask up during the entire journey and get vaccinated as soon as you can. 

Timothy O’Neil-Dunne is a principal at 777 Partners, and the views expressed here are his own.

Featured image credit: Nikolai Sermiagin/Getty Images

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