How Technology Is Helping People Resume International Travel
In May of this year, I was visiting family in Venice, Italy. I wanted to go to Amsterdam in the Netherlands for a long weekend to see my friend Carlo. I purchased a ticket on a nonstop flight for €175 and left with just my backpack and Mac. It was a good deal and was supposed to be an easy trip. Then came the COVID-19 processes, and nothing was easy.
I am an Italian citizen who lives in the United States. I’m fully vaccinated. I travel for work quite a bit, as evidenced by my Delta Diamond medallion card.
The airline said that travel is discouraged, but borders are open. To enter the Netherlands, I needed proof of a negative COVID PCR test 24 hours before departure or a negative PCR test within 72 hours and an antigen test on departure. Although the airline said I could get the rapid test at the airport, at a cost of €35, it was up to me to decide where to get the PCR test. (There were very few locations available in my area.) After some research, I found out it was almost impossible to get a PCR test result in 24 hours because the labs are only open in the morning. (The tests cost €85.) So, I needed two tests: the PCR test and the antigen test, which cost a total of €120. The airline said I needed a two-page health declaration and that I must quarantine for 10 days on arrival. I also needed to inform local Dutch authorities where I am arriving from, on which flight, and where I am staying.
The trip back was equally challenging. Italy requires a negative COVID PCR or an antigen test 48 hours before departure, a health declaration, five days of fiduciary isolation, and another antigen test after the quarantine. As before, I have to inform local authorities when I am arriving, from where, on which flight, and where I am going to stay. I now needed to figure out where to get the PCR test in the Netherlands, how much it costs, how long it takes for the result to come back (12 hours, 24 hours, or longer), and when there are appointments available. After some digging and online translation (I do not speak Dutch), I found a PCR test for only €69 and made an appointment for Saturday morning. I would need to break quarantine to get the test.
The trip experience was inconsistent. On the outbound trip, online check-in was disabled, so there was a huge line at the check-in counter in Venice because airline agents were inspecting the paper health declaration and the COVID test results. Some people were turned away. On the way back, I was able to check in online. I got through Security OK, but had to file a good-health paper declaration and get it stamped in a dedicated secure area. And after all of that, no one checked the declaration or my COVID-19 test results.
To summarize, my plans for a long weekend in Amsterdam required:
- Plane ticket: €175
- Four COVID-19 tests: €224
- Eight days of quarantine (10 cut to 3 in the Netherlands and 5 in Italy)
- A lot of online research. A lot of paperwork, emails, mobile apps (for the labs), and text messages.
My vaccination status was not considered throughout the process and some of that paperwork wasn’t even looked at. There must be a better way.
The Customer Experience
What distinguishes Amazon from other companies is that we work backward from our customers. We put ourselves in their shoes and solve the problem for them. So, what would be an ideal travel experience in the era of COVID? The customer engagement journey can be divided into four parts.
Searching and Booking
At this stage, the traveler goes online to explore where to go. Information required for the trip is displayed. From the get-go, the restrictions, requirements, and protocol to get to the destination should be clear. For example, just recently, non-EU citizens can travel to selected countries in Europe if they are vaccinated. Today, you cannot travel to some European countries (for example, Italy) unless you are Italian or an EU resident.
This information can be used in marketing campaigns and promotions. It can also be used to forecast new routes and new market openings, to adjust prices, create packages, and tailor offerings. The airlines should also make clear what happens if these rules are broken, as a recent traveler to Argentina found out.
Preparing for the Trip
The real challenge comes at this stage. Travelers need a clear checklist with up-to-date information, in a single location, about what’s required to enter the country (for example, vaccination or a PCR test, paperwork, and so on). The airline website or mobile app should provide:
- A checklist of steps for the traveler to complete.
- The protocol at the destination and, if the trip has connections, at any transit locations (third-party governments also enforce COVID restrictions on connecting passengers).
- Which COVID-19 test is accepted at the destination and at connecting airports. A list of labs where the traveler can get tested that includes locations, cost, hours of operation, test provided, and expected wait for results. The airline app should maybe include the ability to schedule the appointment.
- For each test type, the earliest and latest times a traveler can get tested. Differences in policy for each airport in the itinerary must be noted.
- The option to book an Uber or taxi to get to the testing lab and back.
When a traveler gets tested, the result should be communicated to or ingested automatically by the airline, and the result should be available upon request.
There should be no need for the traveler to go to other sites or present physical paperwork. Invite the traveler to digitally compile all the required paperwork. The airline app can use what’s already known about the traveler and trip profile (first name, last name, origin, destination, destination location, flight number, seat location) to pre-fill paperwork fields.
Day of Departure
If all the required steps in the checklist have been completed and validated for every touchpoint in the itinerary (connections included), the traveler should be able to proceed with the check-in and follow the regular pre-pandemic process. A traveler who does not have all the required information might have to go to the check-in counter to validate all the requirements are met. In a self-service mode (chatbot or live agent), before the traveler goes to the airport, the airline should make the options clear: good to go, postpone (and rebook) the trip, cancel the trip, or consult the agent for more guidance.
Arrival at Destination
Upon arrival, the information the traveler provided should be communicated to the authorities (for example, Immigration and Border Control, health authorities) who check if it’s accurate and sufficient for entry. The self-certification should be routed to local health authorities. The mobile app should send a reminder or notification to the traveler about the return trip in case anything must be arranged at the destination airport (for example, booking the testing required for return). If something happens at the destination or during the trip (for example, if the traveler gets infected, was exposed to an infected person, or has a temperature), contingency and emergency plans should be notified to the traveler (e.g., arrangement of quarantine, trip back, etc…). Contact tracing and updated information of the evolving COVID situation at the origin and destination might be good to have too.
When the traveler returns, the same process applies.
At the center of the process I’ve outlined is the airline’s mobile app. It should be a single source for COVID-related travel information. If properly implemented, the mobile app would reduce stress and increase traveler trust and loyalty. It would be a trusted advisor and serve as a single source of information about any COVID-related situations about the trip. The app could offer health services (e.g. where to find doctors speaking your language, emergency phone numbers, 24h assistance), well-being suggestions (e.g. what is the COVID related best practice at destination, recommendation of what to do, areas to avoid), and related services creating ancillaries sales opportunities for the airline.
So how can we get there?
Travel Health Pass
Although airlines are working on it, the current customer experience is inconsistent and fractured. However, some tech companies are focused on improving the customer experience through travel health pass solutions. These solutions mostly cover the pre-trip and day-of-trip parts of the customer journey.
Travel restrictions change at a frantic rate and governments demand the airlines enforce them. Testing practices, vaccination acceptance status, and protocols change as variants, vaccination and infection rates, and vaccine and testing efficacy come to light. Airlines are leaving the heavy lifting to companies who specialize in acquiring, sharing, and validating this information.
In broad terms, a travel health pass is a mechanism that enables travelers to collect COVID-19 vaccination or testing results in a safe and secure way and selectively share them with a desired party (for example, an airline, airport authority, Immigration). The travel health pass is available on the traveler’s smartphone. The traveler can access this and, e.g., display on the smartphone a green or red sign or a QR code that indicates the traveler’s compliance with the COVID travel restrictions. Although the travel health pass can be used as a separate app like a digital wallet, for a more seamless experience, the airlines can integrate the pass into their mobile app through an API or SDK. That is, these tech providers run a portion of the airline mobile app just for the purpose of validating the traveler’s compliance with COVID rules and requirements.
Travel health pass providers offer a digital wallet where users can store and authorize the sharing of their health information (testing and vaccination) with the airline, Border Control, health authorities, and other organizations. The travel health pass providers have a direct relationship with health authorities, clinics, and testing labs so they can seamlessly retrieve this data when it’s available or they can ingest digital and paper testing and vaccination certificates, ensuring with a high degree of confidence that this documentation is acceptable, authentic, and accurate.
In my conversations with airlines, including industry leaders, one spokesperson for a large airline in the Asia Pacific said, “Please help the travel health pass providers as much as possible, because we need this to work.”
I spoke to the leading players in this space. Because there will be more than one tech provider in the marketplace, airlines can choose a primary and one or two secondary solutions as appropriate for their geography, required functionality, commercials arrangements, and lab and clinic coverage. Technology providers and integrators like SITA, Amadeus, IBM, Accenture, and others are integrating their core offering with the leading health pass providers. For example, SITA would integrate them into the IBorder solution to facilitate Immigration and Border Control processes and checks. Amadeus would integrate them into the Departure Control System (DCS) to record travel restriction compliance and enable boarding pass printing.
Airlines can outsource the testing and vaccination data ingestion to travel health pass providers. They might also rely on travel health pass providers to verify the travel restrictions (Italy has four pages of restrictions!) through rule engines to ensure the traveler can travel to a selected destination. There are two rule engines: a custom rules engine where the airline can enter its own requirements (for example, wearing masks, when to show documentation) and an industry-wide rules engine that accounts for the restrictions of individual countries. The industry-wide one is the Timatic rule engine, because it is usually based on the IATA Timatic service widely used by airlines and travel agents to verify passenger travel document requirements for their destination and any transit points. Airlines use Timatic today to ensure their customers are compliant with Border Control rules and regulations at the traveler’s destination and transit points.
Finally, given that there are many travel health pass providers, there are also initiatives like the Good Health Pass Collaborative that have brought together more than 125 global companies and organizations from across the health, travel, and technology sectors—including all of the major solution providers—to develop a standard for digital health passes. These standards are not only critical for enabling global interoperability, but also for ensuring that core principles such as privacy, user control, equity, and interoperability are firmly embedded as airlines and governments adopt systems to safely restore international travel.
As Dakota Gruener, ID2020 Executive Director, points out, “Because of its scale and ongoing work with many of the major digital health pass solution providers, AWS can play an incredibly important leadership role by encouraging alignment around standards, such as those outlined in the Good Health Pass Interoperability Blueprint. By promoting public trust and facilitating interoperability, standards offer a path back to the safe, seamless, and trusted travel experience needed to restore global travel and jumpstart the global economy.”
How AWS Is Helping
Unlock Data Access
There are AWS customers like TravelPerk that with the TravelSafe API they are providing the data to travel sellers like Skyscanner, used in the Skyscanner’s COVID-19 Travel Info pages, substantially increasing customer’s travel confidence and site engagement. Or customer like Riskline with their API and plug-in widget that can be embedded in any website offering clear COVID-19 restrictions information not only in English but also in French, Spanish, German and Japanese.
AWS Data Exchange makes it easy to find, subscribe to, and use third-party data in the cloud. As part of our mission, AWS is sourcing third-party data to help academics, researchers, and the healthcare community triage COVID-19 issues. We’re working with organizations who make data available from sources such as public records, foot traffic and business visitation patterns, economic activity, and more.
This data can be used to better inform travelers, create better products, and set up a customer-engagement strategy.
Continuous Customer Support
Long-standing customer Ryanair has already implemented its COVID-19 Travel Wallet in AWS. Ryanair passengers can use this feature of the mobile app to upload their negative PCR tests, their COVID vaccination certificates, and other documents that might be required for EU summer travel. In this blog post, Joaquim Oliveira, Head of Mobile Development, Ryanair Labs explains how the latest Amazon S3 Object Lambda service helped them to process PDF files allowing customers to have all the documentation they need at their fingertips on arrival to their destination. He highlights that this “allowed us to focus on mobile application features and leave the heavy lifting to AWS in a seamless way for our customers.”
Health Pass Provider Acceleration
Evernym, Daon VeriFLY, AOKPass, Affinidi, and Clear are building their travel health passes on AWS. We support them by offering technology, assistance, and expertise where needed. We want their travel health pass solutions to meet Amazon standards for scalability, flexibility, and cost efficiency. And we pay special attention to security and data privacy.
Darren Toh, CEO of AOKPass, says, “The AOKpass digital health pass platform is committed to working with the highly collaborative, innovative, and dynamic AWS ecosystem to support a safer and more efficient return to work, travel, and play. The critical infrastructure provided by AWS allows AOKpass to deploy at scale across all jurisdictions, industry sectors, and local communities working toward recovery globally.”
Access to Cutting Edge ML/AI Technology and Marketplace
The ingestion of paper certificates for vaccination and testing, while not ideal, is here to stay. In a recent sample of 500,000 ingestions from one of these providers, there were over 50,000 labs, using different forms, languages, and document formats. Having a QR code to uniquely identify some of these labs (and possibly the results) would be a plus. Having a back-office integration would be ideal, but this is more the exception than the norm. These companies are using doctors and other professionals to review uploaded photos of the paper certificates by hand, which is neither scalable nor sustainable. Machine learning and AI services like Amazon Textract and Amazon Comprehend Medical can accelerate this process.
Amazon Textract is a machine learning service that automatically extracts text, handwriting, and data from scanned documents. It goes beyond simple optical character recognition (OCR) to identify, understand, and extract data from forms and tables. Amazon Comprehend Medical is a HIPAA-eligible natural language processing (NLP) service that uses machine learning to extract health data from medical text. No machine learning experience is required. For more specific use cases, it’s possible to develop ad-hoc identification algorithms using Amazon SageMaker, the ML service that helps data scientists and developers prepare, build, train, and deploy high-quality ML models quickly.
When an algorithm is going to be finalized, companies can capitalize on their investment by licensing them as seller solutions in AWS Marketplace. Not only can they recoup the R&D costs, they can set the standard for paper/digital certification ingestion and help make this process uniform across providers.
Daon’s CTO, James Ahern, describes how AWS is helping them maintain VeriFLY’s position in this sector: “Daon’s goal is to provide a service that makes a return to travel easier. With Amazon as a partner, we have built our VeriFLY service by leveraging AWS capabilities, to provide an inclusive and reliable service that scales for all types of travelers, whether it be travel by air or sea. The AWS network has further allowed us to build relationships and partnerships that are bringing the convenience of using VeriFLY to the attention of a worldwide audience.”
Another area of active investigation is the Timatic rule engine. Given the complexity and rate of change, it can be expensive, time-consuming, and error-prone to keep the Timatic engine up to date. Each travel health pass provider must implement the Timatic rule engine to make their solution viable for airlines. By implementing a single Timatic rule engine and distributing it through AWS Marketplace, travel health pass providers can accelerate adoption and uniformize rule interpretation. It’s a good additional revenue opportunity for these companies.
Enabling Vaccination Data Access
Sharing COVID-19 vaccination data is politically charged, particularly in the US, and overly complex. It’s becoming the norm to require a traveler to provide proof they were vaccinated at least 14 days before departure, but central health authorities are reluctant to provide access to travelers’ medical health records. In the US, vaccination data is stored in 64 immunization registries (Immunization Information Systems or IIS). Each state has its own registry, with varying rules on how this data can be accessed and by whom. Only a very small number of them allow patients to access their data directly, so a solution that simplifies sharing in a secure and easy way is needed. At AWS, we identified the Portable Vaccination Record solution by Change Healthcare, a leading healthcare technology company and AWS APN Partner, as the solution to facilitate access, with customer consent, to US vaccination and potentially other records.
As G. Shah, Change Healthcare’s VP of Platform and Marketplace, says, “A return to work, travel, school, and life requires a simple and secure way to access and share vaccination status. AWS tools and infrastructure allowed us to rapidly create a solution to connect many data sources, provide consumers easy access to securely share their vaccination data, enable verification of that data with their consent, and meet evolving record requirements.”
For European countries, the European Union Green Pass initiative is being rolled out, but data is stored in an EU-managed central gateway. Local country-level access is being implemented through national gateways and mobile apps. The first launch was on June 1, 2021. The API access is managed at a country level and so requires individual integration. In the UK, NHS Digital, an AWS customer, has Vaccination APIs for vaccination data.
Promoting Interoperability and Partner Scaling
Finally, AWS Partners like Accenture are setting up an integration ecosystem to glue the multiple travel health pass providers together so that each system can talk with each other to, as Christian Winter, Senior Manager at Accenture, says, “enhance the passenger experience and help [the airlines] recover their revenue streams.” He continues, saying, “Cloud-based architectures are the fundamental enabler by providing the needed flexibility and agility. Accenture has partnered with clients in the industry and AWS to help airlines and passengers to self-check-in off-airport again, based on an open network of digital health platforms. This is not only reducing the congestion at airports and improving travelers convenience through reduced queuing, but also improving airlines’ OpEx through minimizing the need for manual processing and subsequent delay cost.“
International travel is getting back on its feet. The same travel health pass technology used by airlines can be used by cruise lines, entertainment venues, and food-catering services, for both return-to-travel or return-to-work initiatives. In fact, in a recent interview, Ed Bastian, CEO at Delta, said that going forward, the company will only hire people who have been vaccinated. Current employees who have not been vaccinated might have their job responsibilities changed.
To accelerate travel recovery and restore the public’s confidence, the industry must consider all phases of the customer journey. After obtaining consent, a traveler’s current vaccination status, citizenship, and international travel patterns can be used to create new travel products, promotions, marketing campaigns, and tailored offers. More important, the information can be used to identify people, like me, who are ready to travel now. I’m ready to go back to Europe for a vacation.
At AWS, we are working closely with the key players in the travel and hospitality industry to accelerate their solutions, facilitate adoption, enable scale, and promote interoperability. As Steve Havas, CEO of Evernym, says ‘We’re grateful to the AWS team on a number of levels, naturally, the flexibility and scalability that AWS affords us from a hosting point of view, but further the efforts of their business development team to help drive to successful outcomes for our customers and ourselves have been magnificent. We share Massimo’s love of travel, and are looking forward to getting back in the skies’.
It’s still unclear what summer 2021 will be like for international travel, but with technology that ensures a safe and seamless experience, the industry will be on better footing moving forward.
Companies are using AWS to build what’s next in travel. For more information, see Travel and Hospitality.