Executives at Delta Air Lines and Heathrow Airport have expressed interest in “digital immunity passports” to certify non-Covid-19 travelers as a tool to open up global travel again.

Digital immunity passports are generally defined as an officially-recognized record of a person’s Covid-19 antibody test results that can be displayed on a mobile app and presented before being allowed entry to hotel or boarding a plane, according to a recent exploration of the topic by the New Yorkermagazine.

We all agree that travelers need to feel safe to fly again in order for the aviation industry to recover. The agreement ends, however on how we achieve that feeling of safety. (Full disclosure: my company, Loud-Hailer, offers a contact and facility tracing solution using our patented Bluetooth technology.)

Some other companies, however, offer digital “immunity passports” in the form of a mobile app to document on a person’s smartphone their Covid-19 status. CLEAR, the airport screening service, is offering a biometric based immunity passport.

Questioning Immunity Passports

Immunity passports trouble me a great deal.

Their purpose appears to enable countries, airlines or airports to restrict flying based on the classification of passengers’ Covid-19 statuses. It was barely 10 years ago that the U.S lifted its travel ban on people with HIV. So there is a long historical precedent for a person’s viral status to limit their ability to travel.

But I have so many questions.

  • Would certain planes (not just flights, but planes) be for people who tested negative as opposed to those who recovered?
  • Could airlines charge more based on the traveler’s status if the airline will need to clean more thoroughly?
  • The CDC has said that antibody tests for Covid-19 can have the wrong result half the time. So could people be required to take multiple tests to eliminate the possibility of false negatives?
  • How do these immunity passports report their data to the different public health authorities where the traveler originates and ends their flight?
  • Will the immunity passports be bundled with specific testing companies so that if I’m flying Delta out of Heathrow I may need to use two different immunity passports and take two different Covid-19 tests?
  • The test is only good as of the time it was taken, so how often would a person need to take the antibody test to revalidate their negative status? Not to mention a recent UK study suggests Covid-19 immunity may last less than a year. Until the world has more time to study this pandemic, we need to be careful about how think about the concept of immunity.

There is much to learn about Covid-19, and there is not scientific consensus about who can transmit the disease or whether even someone who has recovered from the disease can redevelop it, which renders the whole concept of Covid-19 immunity questionable.

The Science And Psychology of Traveler Safety

Use of immunity passports could create perverse incentives for workers.

Could airlines and airports rehire only those workers who have recovered from Covid? Would that encourage people to get sick now so that they can get back to work sooner?

Lower paid essential workers, who can least afford to become ill, may feel economically pressured to get sick. In addition to piling on the suffering of vulnerable essential workers, just consider the multiplier impact on the already-strained healthcare system.

Traveler safety has two components: scientific and psychological. I accept that having an unoccupied middle seat next to me may not make my flight statistically much safer, since the passengers sitting in the rows ahead and behind me are closer than six feet.

But gosh, simply on a purely emotional level, it will certainly make me feel safer having that empty middle seat.

Even if I had a digital immunity passport, and was on a flight that was restricted to people who had tested negative for Covid-19, I would feel very anxious if the person sitting next to me coughed repeatedly during the flight or exhibited any symptoms, no matter what their digital immunity passport says.

To address these passenger needs, here are the steps the airlines have taken or are considering:

  • Compulsory participation of passengers in a national contact tracing database.
  • Start selling middle seats again, but require the wearing of masks (albeit with spotty enforcement).
  • Additional deep cleaning of the planes (I better not see a crumb before I sit down or I will lose it).
  • Restrict food and beverage services and access to lavatories for certain flights.

What would make me feel secure to fly again?

Fundamentally, Covid-19 precautions are for the most part about protecting people from each other. I expect at a basic level the airline to provide contact and facility tracing, rigorous cleaning and mandating the wearing of PPE. In a closed environment such as an airplane, every crew member and passenger must agree to behave according to these precautions.

If someone flagrantly violates guidelines by refusing to wear a mask or spitting at other passengers (whether for a political reason or for seeking temporary Internet fame), other passengers will not feel safe, whether or not that middle seat is filled.

That means the crew must be willing and empowered to enforce those rules, no matter how famous or politically important that non-complying person is. (Is the crew allowed to restrain that person and force them to wear a mask?)

If the guidelines are not enforced, there will be no safety.

And then the airlines will compete on a race to the bottom by focusing not on passenger experience or safety but on price and how many middle seats they can fill. But if I know that the airline has a no tolerance policy and the crew is instructed to and will do everything they possibly can to make sure that everyone on that flight is safe, including even restraining a disruptive passenger, then that is the airline for me.

About our guest author, Jack Chen

Jack Chen is the CEO and Co-Founder of Loud-Hailer, which has a patented beacon-free technology platform specializing in hyperlocal engagement and services. He’s always thinking about the convergence of technology, airlines and retail — not just because it’s his job, but because he’s (well, on pause until the skies open regularly again) a frequent flyer.