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Lengthy check-in times threaten to derail travel recovery

Check-in has never been such a lengthy process as during the pandemic.

Extra paperwork and lengthy check-in times threaten to derail the recovery of air travel and cause airport chaos, the International Air Transport Association has warned.

Pre-Covid, passengers spent an average of an hour-and-a-half in travel processes. However, current data indicates that waiting times have ballooned to double this.

Before the pandemic, catching a flight required check-in, security checks, customs clearance and baggage claim, which IATA says on average added up to just over an hour. But with additional health checks and paper rather than digital documentation, passengers are reporting check-in times of up to six hours on Asia bound flights with airline staff having to pour through reams of paperwork for each passenger.

Modelling also suggests that the time spent in airport processes could leap to more than five hours per trip if traffic rises to 75% of pre-Covid levels, and as much as eight hours if travel returns to 100%.

Reports of mis-informed staff are also rife, with boarding even being denied to passengers with the correct paperwork. Members of one Hong Kong travel Facebook Group reported check-in times of up to six hours at London Heathrow, only to be denied boarding by certain airlines despite having undergone all the Hong Kong government required Covid testing procedures in advance of the flight.

“Nobody will tolerate waiting hours at check-in or for border formalities,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s director general. “We must automate the checking of vaccine and test certificates before traffic ramps up. The technical solutions exist. But governments must agree to digital certificate standards and align processes to accept them. And they must act fast.”

IATA is calling for globally recognised, standardised and interoperable digital certificates for both Covid testing and vaccine certification. As travel begins to resume, there are large question marks as to whether vaccine certification issued in one country is acceptable in another. And digital vaccination information is often only domestically available, such as England's NHS app which can only be downloaded using an Apple ID registered in the UK.

The association would like to see internationally-recognised ‘smart’ vaccination certificates issued based on World Health Organisation data standards and with QR codes, test certificates issued in accordance with data requirements set out by the International Civil Aviation Organisation and worldwide acceptance of traveller friendly apps such as the IATA travel pass.

Digital certificates would also avoid fraud, enable simple ‘ready to fly’ checks, would significantly reduce queuing through integration with self-service check-in and increase security through integration of digital documents with border control.

“This cannot wait,” said Walsh. “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.”

It’s hoped an agreement will be reached between global leaders at the G7 summit which begins in June.

“A good first step would be G7 agreement with industry input on a common set of Covid-19 travel requirements,” said Walsh. “If the G7 took these leadership measures, the freedom to travel could be seamlessly restored for about a third of all journeys and other countries could build on that leadership.”

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