Counterfeit chaos warning amid aviation reopening

There are growing fears that unless a global digital vaccine passport can be created the world’s airports and airlines will face the threat of desperate travellers looking to use forged documentation to sidestep COVID precautions.

Global travel is beginning to re-open driven by the world’s vaccination programmes. However, fears are that travellers will look to use counterfeit documents in order to travel if they have yet to receive a vaccine with the threat to reignite outbreaks of the disease in countries which are finally getting some control over the spread.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) 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 COVID-19 measures.

The association’s Director General Willie Walsh warned the time for action is now or airports and airlines faced travel chaos in the weeks and month ahead.

IATA added the threats would be severe. It warned 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 3 hours during peak time with travel volumes at only about 30% of pre-COVID-19 levels,” said the association. “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 5.5 hours per trip at 75% pre-COVID-19 traffic levels, and 8 hours per trip at 100% 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,” Walsh added. “Already, average passenger processing and waiting times have doubled from what they were pre-crisis during peak time—reaching an unacceptable three hours. 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. 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.

“This cannot wait. More and more people are being vaccinated. More borders are opening. Booking patterns tell us that pent-up demand is at extremely high levels. But governments and the competent authorities are acting in isolation and moving far too slowly. A smooth restart is still possible. But governments need to understand the urgency and act fast.”.

IATA’s views have been backed up by travel risk intelligence company Riskline which echoed the warnings of chaos including the threat of unvaccinated passengers seeking to circumvent travel controls.

“In the absence of digital vaccination apps and because insecure paper documents are easy to fake, many travellers are likely to be using counterfeit vaccination passports; the consequences will be long delays at airports,” said Adam Schrader, Director of Operations at Riskline. “Governments and travel authorities are now hastily rushing to introduce vaccination passports to meet the demand to open up travel and holidays.

“While digital vaccine passports are in development and testing, the absence of any universal standards means that many people around the world have already been issued with paper documentation for their vaccinations.

“The unvaccinated who still want to travel will turn to counterfeit documents and fake vaccination passports which are already available on the dark web. Some violators may not be caught.

“It is reassuring to see that, with the EU set to give British holidaymakers the green light to use ‘vaccine passports’ to enter Europe, member states will also be recommended to set up digital portals that will enable Britons to use the NHS app as a vaccine passport. Those who are not vaccinated will have to present a negative Covid test or evidence of immunity.

“Until all countries introduced digital vaccination records, security will be weak and be dependent on hard-pressed border and travel staff checking documents diligently. The queues will be lengthy.”