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New COVID-19 Travel Guidance Issued as Traveler Confidence Grows

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Council has approved six new COVID-19 recommendations and amended two others, as countries continue to address latest information and cooperate to optimize the role of international air transport in global pandemic recovery and ensure the speedy resumption of air travel. 

The new and amended recommendations and updated guidelines are contained in the High-Level Cover Document and ‘Take-off’ Guidelines issued by the Council’s Aviation Recovery Task Force (CART), established shortly after the pandemic was identified by the World Health Organization (WHO). 

The Council has taken into account the latest position of the WHO, which specifies that proof of COVID-19 vaccination should not be made a condition for international travel.

Specific areas relating to the transport of vaccines on commercial aircraft have also been newly addressed by the CART, requiring attention and action on behalf of pharmaceutical manufacturers, airline and airport operators, and national aviation regulators. These include addenda to the ICAO Technical Instructions for the Safe Transport of Dangerous Goods by Air to help better ensure that vaccines are safely handled, transported, and accepted to promote their rapid and effective global distribution. 

Air crew were also the focus of new recommendations pertaining to regulatory alleviations and the continuous need of service providers and air transport essential personnel, including pilots and controllers, to maintain the validity of their certificates, licenses, and other professional accreditations and approvals. 

The ICAO Manual on Testing and Cross-Border Risk Management Measures, first issued last November, has also been updated during CART Phase III to provide more detailed guidance on risk management and Public Health Corridors, information on recent scientific evidence regarding COVID-19 testing, as well as a new section on vaccination and its interdependencies with other tools available to States as part of their multilayer risk management framework.

The two revised recommendations are:

Recommendation 12: Member States should plan to put in place the necessary measures to mitigate risks associated with prolonged regulatory alleviations, and to avoid extending alleviations (both core and extended COVID-19 Contingency Related Differences (CCRDs)) beyond 31 March 2021. States that are in need of alternative actions to enable service providers and personnel to maintain the validity of their certificates, licenses, and other approvals during the COVID-19 pandemic should use the Targeted Exemptions (TE) system from 1 April 2021. In addition, States are encouraged to facilitate cross-border access to medical and training facilities, including flight simulation training devices used for flight crew (national and foreign) and Air Traffic Controllers (ATCOs) to maintain their certifications, recency of experience, and proficiency. 

Recommendation 14: States considering the formation of a Public Health Corridor (PHC) should actively share information with each other to implement PHCs in a harmonized manner. To facilitate the implementation, the ICAO Implementation Package (iPack) on establishing a PHC is available to States, in addition to PHC-specific tools published on the ICAO website and the App providing a template PHC arrangement between States. 

The new recommendations are:

Recommendation 15: Member States are urged to implement Addenda Nos. 1 and 2 to the ICAO Technical Instructions for the Safe Transport of Dangerous Goods by Air (Doc 9284) without delay in order to facilitate the transport of COVID-19 vaccines and to permit certain dangerous goods to be carried on board aircraft to provide for a safe, sanitary operating environment for passengers and crew. If any State wishes to be more restrictive, they are reminded of their obligation to file a State variation to the Technical Instructions. 

Recommendation 16: Member States are encouraged to consider the temporary lifting of restrictions to air cargo operations, including but not limited to granting extra-bilateral rights, in particular for all-cargo services, to foreign airlines to facilitate the transportation of essential goods, supplies and COVID-19 vaccines. 

Recommendation 17: Member States should implement testing certificates based on the protocol, minimum dataset and implementation approaches outlined in the ICAO Manual on Testing and Cross-Border Risk Management Measures (Doc 10152) to facilitate air travel. States are encouraged to request evidence of testing that is secure, trustworthy, verifiable, convenient to use, compliant with data protection legislation and internationally/globally interoperable. Existing solutions should be considered and could incorporate a visible digital seal. This may be applicable to vaccination certificates. 

Recommendation 18: Member States should facilitate access for air crew to vaccination as quickly as possible within the World Health Organization (WHO) Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE) Stage III recommendations. 

Recommendation 19: Vaccination should not be a prerequisite for international travel. At such time as evidence shows that vaccinated persons would not transmit the SARS-CoV-2 virus or would present a reduced risk of transmitting the virus, Member States may exempt such individuals from testing and/or quarantine measures, in accordance with a State’s accepted risk threshold, national framework, the COVID-19 situation and the multilayered risk mitigation framework described in the Take-off: Guidance for Air Travel through the COVID-19 Public Health Crisis. 

Recommendation 20: Member States should ensure that ICAO’s CART guidance is taken into consideration by the wider State administration in the decision-making processes on national recovery planning. 

The ICAO Council will convene a high-level conference with Ministerial participation in October to muster the political will of States and obtain commitment towards a full recovery of international air transport. 

The updated guidance was issued as the International Air Transport Association (IATA) reported that traveler confidence is growing.

IATA’s survey found that 85% of travelers polled believe that governments should set COVID-19 targets (such as testing capacity or vaccine distribution) to re-open borders. A similar number (84%) believe that COVID-19 will not disappear, and we need to manage its risks while living and traveling normally. 81% of survey respondents say they will be more likely to travel when vaccinated, and 57% expect to be traveling within two months of the pandemic being contained (an improvement from 49% from the previous survey in September 2020). Quarantine on arrival remains unpopular with 84% of travelers polled saying they will not travel if there is a chance of quarantine at destination (largely unchanged from 83% in September 2020).

There are still indications that the pick-up in business travel will take time with 62% of respondents saying they are likely to travel less for business even after the virus is contained. That is, however, a significant improvement from the 72% recorded in September 2020.

Travel health credentials are already opening borders to some countries. But survey respondents sent a clear message on the importance of data security.  Some 78% of travelers say they will not use an app if they are not in full control of their data. And about 60% will not use a travel credential app if data is stored centrally. IATA is developing a Travel Pass that will allow passengers to keep all the data on their mobile devices, and they remain in full control of where that data goes as there is no central database. Numerous trials are already underway.

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Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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