The concept of digital health passports is being presented as a way back to travel.
There are already at least seven different companies with solutions and an increasing number of announcements around airlines adopting local services.
In addition, standards are being discussed around different elements such as storing and sharing vaccination records.
All of this brings hope as well as its own set of challenges for the corporate travel world.
In the following Q&A, Brandon Balcom, senior director, innovation business development, at CWT discusses those challenges with PhocusWire.
Is it a concern that the digital health passport will be as fragmented as everything else in the travel technology world?
It is and it could play out in a number of ways. It could be a good thing because if we were all trending towards one solution we could end up with something sub-par, a poor user experience. But the risk with fragmentation is that it’s even harder for travelers to understand processes. I think beyond even the number of solutions, even if you were to have one per airline, the reality is today, as airlines are getting their arms around this, you have situations where we're testing different solutions in different markets.
That’s not to say anyone is doing anything wrong, but then you add complexity of governments and government requirements, so then who is running the show? It could vary on the geography or the specific city pair.
From a travel management company perspective we want to find a way where we can provide a consistent, high-quality experience for our travelers. The industry benefits when there is that ease brought back in because everything else is just so hard. This is about how do we get the industry back and into recovery mode in the safest, most effective way possible.
Standards are being developed and some of the big companies such as Microsoft and Oracle are involved. How important will that be?
Standards are everything to an extent. This could play out in a number of ways. Right now when everything is still, for 90% plus of situations, based on testing, you have to match the requirements of a timing type of test per city pair. Then you have to match those requirements with the test results in a certain time period so that poses challenges in and of itself.
You might have standardization for a particular market or country but it becomes incredibly complex when you start to think about standardizing globally. But, without that we’re going to continue to have the fragmentation and a lot of complexity for consumers and travelers to understand what they need to do just to get from point A to point B which is going have the continued weight and impact on recovery.
With standards you allow the opportunity for the best players to rise to the top and new solutions to come into the marketplace and for generally, people to have ease with returning to travel.
With the idea of a health passport and already some governments and airlines making noise about not letting you fly unless vaccinated, do you think that’s going to take hold? Is that our future?
If I think back to some of the quotes I’m familiar with of all passengers needing to be vaccinated on a given airline, those are probably a little bit early. Even now we’re not seeing many governments, even though vaccination is starting, we’re not seeing a lot of instances where the vaccination is a supplement for testing.
I think the science is still trying to determine whether vaccination means you would be able to pass along the virus.
There’s certainly that sense of the class system you could potentially create if only vaccinated folks could travel. When I look as these solutions, my hope for these solutions is they become an enabler. For now, maybe we find comfort that testing brings everybody to an even keel, even an equal opportunity, to still travel but once we start to see mass adoption of vaccines you could potentially see some sticky situations.
Is there recognition from the industry that these outbreaks are here to stay and we need to find ways to deal with them?
I think the industry is considering how it thinks about health and wellness in a more meaningful way, long-term. I think people are going to think differently about the flu and colds. Even though it was in the back of our minds, we all charged through - the heavy road warriors, the travelers - we dealt with it.
I think in the future we’re going to have more focus, and for some time, on epidemics in different locations and how we either restrict travel or move around that.
That’s an area ripe for innovation, there was a movement towards that. CWT had certainly moved into that space as we think more and more about what it means to be business to business to employee company. That means you’re really focused on the care, the experience, the wellbeing of those individuals who are as much your customers as the travel manager or procurement officer.
What will it take from a technology perspective to standardize these approaches to health passports?
At the most basic level, there’s probably going to be QR code or bar code that gets scanned at the airport so we need interoperability at that point.
We see that working rather effectively today when you think about moving through international airports and scanning your boarding pass for whatever airline you’re traveling on. Now you’re at the security checkpoint and your flight information appears so they have some tenets of this happening today but when we think about the health passport concept then you have to have at least four elements figured out and standardized.
- A repository of the travel requirements. We have to all agree that to go from this point of origin to that destination, these are the requirements of the testing that has to have taken place or the vaccine.
- Standardization around labs and the testing network. How does the lab transfer that information to validate that this individual has received a negative result.
- We have to think about the identify verification at multiple points in the process. Did the lab validate the ID of the individual in a proper way that is standardized for travel?
- And one of the challenges from a vaccination point of view is, as governments, from national level to local municipalities, work to try and get people vaccinated as quickly as possible, you see people leaving with a small card. What were the standards that went into providing them with that card? And, is that enough proof of vaccination going forward? Do we have the right records already for those that have gotten vaccinated?
Maybe there will have to be some other type of test to do that in a compliant way. I'm not sure yet, we'll have to see how that plays out.
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Also, as I mentioned for the lab and the test results transfer, I think we all need to be mindful of the type of data we are talking about here. The best situation would be where individuals have their own data stored in a place local for them and the only thing that should matter to a travel provider is that it meets the requirements for the person to be safe to travel.
An obvious positive is we can all get back to travel. An obvious pitfall might be privacy issues. What are other positives and negatives?
Ease is the big positive in the return of people traveling safely. There’s so much efficiency in so many different places with these kinds of solutions. I think about the customer service agent at the check-in desk, and what they need to go through to validate a piece of paper from X, Y, Z lab. And how do they know this is the right kind of documentation and sorting through to see if it’s the right kind of test - molecular test, PCR, antigen test etc.
That’s a lot of work and manual labor which is always ripe for human error. There's the potential for fraud, we see less of that in business travel but certainly there are bad actors out there. I think those kinds of benefits for efficiency and the reduction of fraud can be some of the positives that go with the health passport.
We want to make sure, in a bigger context that people have the right kind of access. I’m sure we want to be able to keep the cost to participate at zero so that the solution is enabling people to transact and get the industry back up to its pre-COVID levels over time.
How does all this feed into current developments around biometrics?
The idea of the digital identity has been talked about for a number of years. The complexity that goes with that and the sort of community you need to agree, it’s back to standards in ID and authentication. This scenario, to me, will help catapult that forward. I don’t know if we will really solve this nirvana of a ubiquitous health ID or passport before the pandemic works itself out. That’s hard to predict at this point but I’m hopeful it will take some of these elements forward, father and faster.
The potential for air when looking at a photograph and trying to match that, to the human eye, and passport photos typically last for 10 years and, depending on ages it can be difficult to positively identity someone and there are probably better ways to do that. This situation could lend to breaking through or at least making enough dents into it that we eventually break through because the trajectory speeds up.
So there is a need for speed here if the pandemic dies out before a "ubiquitous health passport" comes into play?
You mentioned some of the players announcing the certificate. If we think about the race to standardize testing requirements, will there be enough groundswell in the vaccination effort where vaccination credentials really become the standard and all that work that went into testing standardization, does that go way? It's hard to predict. Then you question what's the appetite for investment into this space if you’re anticipating I might not get there before it works itself out, is kind of a moot point.
With margins so tight anyway in travel management, where does money for innovation come from, is it about getting more from what’s already there?
For the TMC we have to be very disciplined in our own strategy and where we think we get the biggest bang for our buck.
We have always had a view that there will always be innovation happening outside of our role. It's a naive mindset if you’re only thinking about what you’re going to do internally. We have to constantly be engaging and looking for the others that are innovating and how we bring them into the fold.
I think this health passport is a perfect example of that. We could put our own money into investing in, and building a solution but if that only solves the problem for 10% of the situations because certain governments and certain airlines won’t accept it, have I spent my money wisely?
For others there is an intense focus on this space, what's happening, who seems to have the lead, etc. And as soon as there are these broader solutions in place, how do we make sure whatever information is appropriate is in place and how we integrate with that solution to make it easier for the traveler, that we do that.
Did the virus expose certain elements of the travel management process that now need to be addressed? Many people are saying digitalization has been accelerated, so are there areas in the booking and management of corporate travel that were particularly exposed?
I’m not exposed to parts of the mass cancellations and parts of the refund process that changed because of necessity and this completely unprecedented situation.
What’s interesting is that there was a fall back quickly onto the most basis tenets and a lot of human service. We saw a lot of companies switch from online booking to offline booking for the comfort of that human interaction. You could say that the flow in the digital channels is complex and there is still fragmentation.
The fragmentation could be a good thing because if we were all trending towards one solution we could end up with something sub-par, a poor user experience.
Brandon Balcom, CWT
You could debate about NDC and further fragmentation that can bring. Those problems have been there and yes in certain elements this situation has exacerbated them. Sometimes you need that to shake things up, to put more focus on it to solve it.
Otherwise it lies underneath and it’s a nuance or a complexity that everyone is willing to accept for a long time and look to other priorities. When you have a situation like a pandemic those things become front and center quickly.
What will be the tech priorities of corporate travel as the industry sees recovery?
There’s a lot of new information and data sets that need to be incorporated into the entire process. New approval processes have been put in place, we’re already having to provide information about requirements to travel to every destination, all based on where you are coming from and what passport you hold.
People are going to need new information to figure out how to get back on the road. Many business travelers have been at home for an entire year and haven’t experienced this new space. It's about incorporating a lot of that information and building that off of the booking experience where there has been a lot of opportunity for innovation and improvement.
I think that in this down time what’s we’re seeing is focus on new tools, new entrants and existing booking providers who want to expand globally or from one market to another so there’s going to be a lot of attention there.
There's also going to be continued focus on making headway in the NDC space because that’s a reality that you have to be prepared for and between those two things, and the complexity of information flow to the traveler, that's where the focus is going to be.