• Jeremy Springall, Vice-President Border Management

Technology will help protect ‘Travel Bubbles’ from popping

In 2020 new vocabulary has seeped into global consciousness. From ‘new normal’ to the more practical yet equally disliked ‘social distancing’, the additions to this year’s dictionary paint a bleak, dystopian picture.

But in the last few weeks, fresh terms are being met with interest from wanderlust-stricken travelers and cautious optimism from governments and businesses hoping to rebound from the economic damage of COVID-19.

‘Travel bubbles’, ‘travel corridors’ and ‘air bridges’ are terms to describe formal agreements between governments allowing travelers to bypass strict quarantine measures based on the countries they travel between. It’s a simple but elegant idea to help combat the likelihood of COVID-19 resurgence, in particular second waves sparked by passengers arriving from high-risk regions.

As promising as this sounds, the practicality of protecting these bubbles is fraught with technical, operational, and governmental challenges.

Safer and restricted zones

As countries begin to ease air travel restrictions, they will be very mindful of preventing a resurgence of cases. Governments will therefore want to take a controlled manner to open up their borders and might take different approaches based on the risk profile for each travel corridor destination.

Where the virus risk is low, we’re beginning to see specific regions wishing to allow movement within safer zones first, for example the trans-Tasman bubble between Australia and New Zealand which is being discussed. This will enable open travel between countries within the zone, although might still be subject to additional health checks and close monitoring to avoid the risk of outbreaks.

There are also countries deemed higher risk, where travel corridors might be restricted to certain categories of traveler or under strict conditions, for example the Singapore-China ‘fast lane’ corridor. These restricted travel corridors will allow some movement for critical travel, including sponsored business travel.

Both models require an information-driven approach based on real-time data and they need to be responsive to handle rapidly changing situations.

Layered approach

Many governments take a layered approach to border management, starting well in advance of travel. If they can identify high risk passengers and limit their travel, this will support airports and airlines relaxing some of the measures for lower risk passengers at the airport.

There are four primary steps in this layered approach:

The first is the visa or travel authorization process, where passengers apply for entry into a country. We can see that this requirement might increase due to the pandemic and that health information, or a health declaration, will be incorporated into these checks up to the point of departure. Travelers will be asked to confirm where they will be staying during the visit, and their travel within country might be restricted to minimize any risk of movement into higher risk areas. This also supports the passenger by providing clarity and enabling them to plan their travel.

The second step is about collecting Advance Passenger Information (API) and travel booking data, or PNR data as it’s called, from the airlines before travel. This enables the government to do additional risk assessments, including whether the passengers are traveling from high risk areas. We don’t see that health information will be incorporated into this data in the short term, but this might be something that happens in the future. This will require governments to come together with the airlines to define standards in this area.

Risk assessment

The third, and maybe most critical step, is at the point of check-in, where the government can pre-clear a passenger to fly in real-time. Governments who have an Advance Passenger Processing, or interactive API, solution in place can deny boarding of a passenger who is deemed high risk, or for example, has not completed the mandatory health declarations.

We’ve been supporting governments around the world in adapting their Advance Passenger Processing pre-clearance checks in response to COVID-19. Fo