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COVID vaccines

Analog Japan's paper-only vaccine certificates worry airlines

Digital records seen as key to travel industry's recovery from COVID-19

ANA and other airlines are beginning to try out vaccine certificate apps like the IATA Travel Pass. (Photo by Hajime Matsumoto)

TOKYO -- Japan is set to start issuing paper certificates for coronavirus vaccination -- a slow rollout typical for a country struggling with digitization. And the lack of digital options has raised concerns among airlines eager to revive international travel.

"Other countries are making strides in digital certificates, and quickly," said All Nippon Airways Executive Vice President Juichi Hirasawa. "Japan must not fall behind."

The European Union began offering digital vaccine certificates in July, allowing recipients to skip quarantines and other coronavirus travel restrictions within the bloc. While Japan will open applications for official proofs of vaccination on Monday, it will initially offer only physical copies.

With global travel expected to begin recovering from a coronavirus-induced lull, airlines like ANA are now testing apps like the International Air Transport Association Travel Pass as a way to verify if passengers are vaccinated.

But they need government approval to officially accept these apps. Uploading vaccine records managed by a multitude of national and local authorities across the world will also pose a major challenge, especially when the documents are only available in paper as in Japan.

Ideally, passengers would be able to show their vaccination status on these apps at check-in so they can skip COVID-19 restrictions at their destination. Doing so would require airlines and governments to sync up their records.

ANA expects it will take at least a year to put the necessary frameworks in place. Paper certificates would complicate the effort because they are harder to adapt to different languages and easier to fake.

To bring the Japanese government around, the Scheduled Airlines Association of Japan is currently lobbying authorities for an early rollout of digital passports.

"We'll be left behind if we pursue perfection," said Yuji Akasaka, the chairman of the association as well as the president of Japan Airlines. "Going digital has a lower risk of falsification compared to paper. I would request that we match international standards."

During a visit to Tokyo's Haneda Airport on June 4, Kazuyoshi Akaba, the minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism, observed a demonstration of the digital certificate app touted by ANA.

Recently the Japanese government launched a cross-agency organization tasked with issuing digital certificates by the end of the year. But the transport ministry, which oversees the airline industry, is not part of that effort.

"They're the most relevant agency, so why aren't they participating?" a frustrated airline executive asked.

In Western nations, travel demand has tended to recover when vaccination rates reach between 30 and 40%. But with the rise of the delta variant, authorities in some areas are moving to reimpose travel restrictions. As people adapt to traveling during a pandemic, vaccination certificates have gained new significance.

Groups such as the UN-backed International Civil Aviation Organization are busy drawing up overarching rules for vaccine certificates. Japan risks missing out on these discussions if it is slow to introduce digital certificates.

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