As international travel transitions to the use of Covid-19 passports, African airlines have teamed up to use a shared digital passport system developed by the African Union (AU) in partnership with the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC).
A vaccine passport portal for Africa means passengers from the continent can travel within and outside their countries, while encouraging tourists to resume trips, providing a massive boon to an air industry that has been crippled by the pandemic to post historical losses.
Kenya Airways, Ethiopian Airlines and ASKY, a Pan-African airline set up at the initiative of West and Central African governments, have become the first to join the Africa CDC Trusted Travel Alliance.
The Trusted Travel Pass, developed by AU and Africa CDC, is a digital platform to help passengers easily and securely manage their international travel in line with any government requirements for Covid-19 testing and vaccine information.
Julius Thairu, Kenya Airways acting chief commercial officer, said the Trusted Travel Pass enables the carrier's passengers to verify compliance easily and securely to Covid-19 test or vaccine travel requirements to their destination of choice.
"We are incredibly proud to be part of AU and Africa CDC journey ensuring hassle-free and compliant travel across the world, while preventing cross border spread of COVID-19 infection," he noted.
The platform is designed to be incorporated into airlines' own apps, so air travelers can easily understand what they need before they fly.
Passengers will also be able to share the test and vaccination certificates with authorities and airlines to facilitate travel through the Trusted Testing Code (TT Code) which shows that the test was done in an approved Trusted Lab.
The TT Code is used as evidence of the test to generate a Travel Code (TC) for international travel. TT Code and TC are standard travel clearance requirements for international travel in a health emergency.
Africa CDC has so far mobilised a broad multi-stakeholder public private partnership with the help of its strategic partners, the PanaBIOS Consortium and Zimbabwe's Econet, aiming to erase hurdles in accessing accurate health information, high costs and inconvenience in cross border travel, and poor data for health policy and biosecurity planning.
Getinet Tadesse, Chief Information Officer at Ethiopian Airlines told Digital Business the solution will help to validate test and vaccination certificates and verify that they are sufficient for different routes and share testing or vaccination certificates with airlines and authorities to facilitate travel.
He noted that the innovations will also help immigration officials keep fraudulent documentation at bay and make air travel more convenient.
"We are pleased to have introduced a digital platform that will be pivotal in increasing the number of passengers while making air travel safer. We are striving to make travel safe and seamless especially with regard to the implementation of Covid-19 prevention strategies," he said.
Ahadu Simachew, chief executive officer of ASKY, observes that improved quality in travel regulation management across Africa will be key to help restore travel, tourism, trade, investment, cultural exchange and Pan-African integration to the positive and uplifting trajectory that underscores the Africa Rising narrative.
"As the airline set up to promote Africa's socioeconomic transformation, ASKY couldn't be prouder of its support for and promotion of Africa's leadership in developing and rolling out ahead of the rest of the world innovations that de-risks full reopening of societies and economies but one that does so without leaving any African behind," he said.
Dr John Nkengasong, director of the Africa CDC, notes that partnership with all African airlines will be critical in the present context.
"The scale of the challenge presented by Covid-19 demands an unprecedented level of both innovation and cooperation, which is why decisions by Kenya, Ethiopia, West and Central Africa to adopt the Trusted Travel platform marks a milestone in the continent's ongoing fight against this pandemic's potential to suppress Africa's development ambitions," he said.
But globally, experts have questioned whether a coronavirus vaccine passport needs to be different from the vaccine card system already in place.
"I honestly don't think there's a need for it to be a separate thing," says Henry Raymond, an epidemiologist and associate professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health. "The vaccine is not a free pass to get out of wearing a mask."
The European Union recently proposed a Digital Green Certificate to facilitate the safe and free movement of citizens within the EU during the Covid-19 pandemic.
It said it would be digital proof that the person has been vaccinated, tested negative or recovered from the coronavirus. Africa's move to join digital solutions remains in tandem with the EU's travel measures, ensuring Africans travel to European countries without much restriction.
On its part, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) is developing a mobile application called Travel Pass that displays coronavirus test results or proof of inoculation with the aim of providing governments with the confidence to reopen borders without imposing quarantines on incoming travellers.
Technology giant IBM is also working on a digital health pass as a way to to bring people back to a physical location, such as a workplace, school, stadium or airline flight.
Apple and Google previously collaborated on creating standards for contact tracing in smartphones, with the EU suggesting that the tech giants might collaborate again on the same efforts with the World Health Organization.
Given the sensitive health-related data at play as African airlines join the bandwagon, launching any digital service raises questions around privacy and data protection.