Asia-Pacific governments have been urged to talk now about mutual recognition of digital travel and COVID-test certificates even as they ramp up vaccination rates.
Association of Asia Pacific Airlines director general Subhas Menon says vaccination remains the key to opening up travel in the region as many countries that pursued a strategy of eliminating the coronavirus now grapple with the Delta variant.
He says countries such as Australia, Malaysia, Japan and Korea are all ramping up vaccinations with a baseline of 50 percent of the population or above seemingly the trigger point for resuming travel.
“There are, of course, some different permutations,’’ he tells AirlineRatings, noting that the initial phase of opening borders will likely be the domain of vaccinated travelers.
“I would imagine vaccinated travelers going to places where they are welcome by policy and protocol.”
But he says sorting out mutual recognition of digital vaccination and test certificates will be important for avoiding airport logjams that some commentators have warned could add hours to a journey.
The industry has argued consistently against physical certificates such as the old yellow booklets because they can be too easily forged and will take hours to process.
Organizations such as the International Air Transport Association and SITA have developed technology such as secure digital health travel passes to help smooth the way.
“But what is missing is we need governments to sanction digital health certificates,’’ Menon says, noting that the International Civil Aviation Organization and the World Health Organization “have done some very good work” on the issue.
“They’ve issued guidelines on what this should look like and … the standards to be maintained in order to achieve this,’’ he says.
“So if governments can start talking to each other, that is really the key to it.
“If they can start talking to each other and set it up, even if it’s a travel bubble scenario, to clarify and coordinate these requirements then we won’t see these stops and starts happening because things will be in place once that digital option is there.”
The former Singapore Airlines executive also worries about what he describes as “vaccine nationalism”.
He points to the US, which favors those vaccines produced domestically by companies such as Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson.
“I think governments need to follow the science,’’ he says. “WHO has already listed eight vaccines for emergency use.
“Nobody’s an expert but we have to go with authorities when it comes to this — the World Health Organization when it comes to health and when it comes to travel, ICAO.
“We need to recognize the UN authorities and go by this. I think we will get there.”
The former Singapore Airlines executive says eliminating quarantine is also crucial for international travel.
“Quarantine is a big impediment,” he says.
“If you want travel to really pick up you have to find a way of doing away with quarantine as Europe has done, as the UK has done, as Greece has done.
“But I think the idea of allowing the vaccinated to travel first is a good idea. It’s a bit of an incentive to get the show on the road.”
Interestingly, Menon believes travel from the Asia-Pacific to destinations such as Europe is likely to open up ahead of intra-regional services because vaccinated western countries with high travel thresholds are more likely to welcome Asian-Pacific destinations with vaccination rates above 50 percent.
“But for intra-regional, until the Asia-Pacific region is prepared to discard the elimination strategy and adopt a more realistic strategy based on COVID-19 being endemic it will be quite difficult to see it (happen) very quickly,” he says.
“Plus, there is the fact vaccinations rates are still lagging: the current estimate is that it will be the end of 2023 before most of the Asia-Pacific is adequately vaccinated.
“This is just an estimate because most places are ramping up very quickly so hopefully it changes for the better and before 2023 we can see a good enough critical mass of vaccinated places to open up travel.”
Menon also cautions that even if high vaccination rates end the pandemic, this doesn’t mean that COVID-19 is going away.
“You will still have cases of COVID-19, it’s just that you’ll have the safeguards in place such as vaccinations and testing,” he says.