Travel bubbles coming? United Airlines tests potential solution on London-Newark flight

Oct 22, 2020

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A key to reopening borders around the globe to the legions of grounded air travellers is the confidence they will not spread the coronavirus.

Some airlines have launched pre-flight COVID testing options in order to address this problem, but a key gap remains: how does an airline verify a traveller’s COVID-19 status without collecting personal health information?

Enter CommonPass. Developed by The Commons Project Foundation with support from the World Economic Forum, the pass is an independent app that collects a user’s COVID status and verifies their identity. It then produces a unique QR verification code that airlines and countries can rely on to ensure that a traveller does not have the virus.

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Traveller Jason Oshiokpekhai, a managing director at Global Travel Collection, holds up the unique verification code on the CommonPass app before a trail on United flight UA15 from London to Newark on Wednesday. (Image courtesy of The Commons Project Foundation)

United Airlines hosted the organization and volunteers to trial the CommonPass app on flight UA15 from London Heathrow (LHR) to Newark (EWR) on Wednesday. The flight was the first transatlantic test and the second globally. The technology was first tested by Cathay Pacific Airways on a flight between Hong Kong (HKG) and Singapore (SIN).

“I’m happy to report a very successful trial,” Paul Meyer, CEO of The Commons Project, told reporters after the flight.

Commons Project spokesperson Thomas Crampton declined to say how many flyers participated in the UA15 trial.

Additional CommonPass trials are planned with other major airlines around the world in November and December, said Meyers without naming carriers. The goal is to gain the confidence of airlines and governments for the app to begin deploying to all travellers in select markets early in the new year.

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J.D. O’Hara, the CEO of Internova Travel Group, was among the flyers on UA15 who participated in the trial. He described the process as “simple” beginning from taking a rapid COVID test at Heathrow when they arrived at the airport to having the results automatically uploaded to the app. Verifications with both airline and customs officials on both sides of the Atlantic also went smoothly.

“I can tell you as a user knowing that everyone around me had just tested negative,” he said. “That’s a much safer feeling than knowing they’re going to quarantine for 14-days upon arrival. By then it’s too late.”

The next step is to get countries — and airlines — to sign onto the platform. The CommonPass app is designed to adhere to local travel rules and will adjust for each traveller based on their destination, said Meyer. For example, it can distinguish between a country requiring a test 24-hours before departure and one that allows a test 72-hours before flying.

In addition, travellers can upload COVID test results from both local clinics and ones at the airport, he said.

Related: Heathrow pre-departure COVID testing starts today: Is it worth it?

“The whole idea behind the CommonPass and the framework that undergirds it is that countries should have the flexibility to set their own requirements but they should be able to rely on a common platform,” said Meyer.

Meyer did not comment on whether travellers would have to pay to use CommonPass. The organisation’s initial funding came from The Rockefeller Foundation though he did say that they are in discussions with airlines regarding additional funding.

“Hopefully it becomes a concrete tool that can allow our world to begin to get reconnected and open up again,” he said.

Featured image by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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