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ANA trials digital 'health passport' in Tokyo

Airlines hope widespread use of such documents gets people flying again

ANA carried out a trial of a digital health passport on March 29 at Tokyo's Haneda Airport. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

TOKYO -- All Nippon Airways on Monday carried out a trial of a digital "health passport," the first test in Japan of a credential that some hope will breathe new life into international travel and airlines battered by the coronavirus pandemic.

ANA tested the CommonPass digital health app with two passengers for a flight to New York departing from Tokyo's Haneda Airport. The CommonPass will enable people to upload their negative coronavirus test results, and eventually proof of vaccination status, before boarding international flights.

It is one of a number of "vaccine passports" being considered or tested by carriers and authorities around the world to store information on passengers' COVID-19 status, test results and vaccinations.

Nikkei recently learned that the Japanese government is joining China and the European Union in issuing such certificates. Japan Airlines said separately on Monday that it would perform a trial of CommonPass on Friday.

"We are counting a lot on the CommonPass, as it would eventually lead to an easing of entry restrictions for each country if proof of negative test results and vaccination were internationally approved," Hiroshi Goto, who manages ANA's digital solutions, told reporters at Haneda. "Lowering burdens for international travel would mean a lot for businesses as well as tourism."

The passengers taking part in the trial run showed the app at an ANA check-in counter. The app combines information such as the passenger's COVID-19 test date, destination and verification that the passenger has the documentation required for travel. "Using the app, I knew instantly at which clinic I could take a PCR test. This was very practical," said one passenger who participated in the trial.

The CommonPass was jointly developed by the nonprofit Commons Project Foundation and the World Economic Forum. The idea behind the pass is to expedite boarding by eliminating the need for the airline to verify that each customer's information meets the conditions for entry at their destination, said the WEF's Takanori Fujita.

The CommonPass app contains data on the passenger's COVID-19 status and documentation required for entry, which is verified quickly at the airline counter. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

ANA's Goto said the system would significantly lessen the workload for the airline's ground staff.

"This is the first trial in Japan. We would like to assess whether the app, which is simpler and more credible than the paper format, can be deployed at an airline check-in counter without any issues," added Fujita. The U.S., for example, issues such certificates on paper at present.

The CommonPass app has been undergoing trials with airlines, including Cathay Pacific Airways, United Airlines and Lufthansa, since last October. Authorities in a number of countries, including the U.S., are also eager to adopt such technology. 

Many industry observers believe health credentials will bring international travel closer to normal by speeding procedures for passengers at low risk of COVID-19 infection. However, deployment will depend on whether governments allow their use as an entry document.

With no agreed global standard, various certificates are emerging around the world, including the IATA Travel Pass developed by the International Air Transport Association. The European Union is planning a digital health certificate, and China has a health passport already in use. But these documents are only valid for passengers inoculated with vaccines approved by those authorities.

The divergent rules could confuse passengers.

Acknowledging the importance of coordination with other apps, Fujita said interoperability is a key. "We are also discussing with the IATA and the Japanese government for implementation. It is desirable for users be able to download the app they want," he added. ANA is also set to pilot IATA's solution by June.

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