The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has warned of potential airport chaos unless governments move quickly to adopt digital processes to manage travel health credentials (COVID-19 testing and vaccine certificates) and other measures. Pre-COVID-19, passengers on average spent about 1.5 hours in travel processes for every journey (check-in, security, border control, customs and baggage claim).

Current data indicates that airport processing times have ballooned to three hours during peak time with travel volumes at only about 30 per cent of pre-COVID-19 levels. The greatest increases are at check-in and border control (emigration and immigration) where travel health credentials are being checked mainly as paper documents.

Modelling suggests that without process improvements, the time spent in airport processes could reach five-and-a-half hours per trip at 75 per cent pre-COVID-19 traffic levels, and eight hours per trip at 100 per cent pre-COVID-19 traffic levels.

"Without an automated solution for COVID-19 checks, we can see the potential for significant airport disruptions on the horizon. Already, average passenger processing and waiting times have doubled from what they were pre-crisis during peak time — reaching an unacceptable three hours," said Willie Walsh, IATA's Director General.

"And that is with many airports deploying pre-crisis level staffing for a small fraction of pre-crisis volumes. Nobody will tolerate waiting hours at check-in or for border formalities," he said.

"We must automate the checking of vaccine and test certificates before traffic ramps-up. The technical solutions exist. But governments must agree digital certificate standards and align processes to accept them. And they must act fast," said Walsh. Over the past two decades air travel has been reinvented to put passengers in control of their journeys through self-service processes. This enables travellers to arrive at the airport essentially 'ready to fly.'

With digital identity technology, said IATA, border control processes are also increasingly self-service using e-gates. Paper-based COVID-19 document check would force travellers back to manual check-in and border control processes that are already struggling even with low volumes of travellers. If governments require COVID-19 health credentials for travel, integrating them into already automated processes is the solution for a smooth restart. IATA said this will need globally recognised, standardised and interoperable digital certificates for COVID-19 testing and vaccine certificates.

IATA has asked the Group of Seven (G7) to work with the air transport industry to take leadership in restarting the global travel sector. "By engaging with the air transport industry, we can ensure that government requirements for safe travel are met with solutions that can be efficiently operationalised," said Walsh.