Airlines introduce world’s first immunity passport exempting travellers from quarantine

An airliner comes in to land at Heathrow Airport

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

While travel may seem like a distant memory to most, United Airlines and Cathay Pacific are trialing a COVID-19 passport app that lets travellers be exempted from self-isolation on arrival.

The CommonPass app works by having travellers upload a COVID-19 test in their departure country. The software will generate a QR code that border and airline officials can scan to see a positive or negative test result.

The volunteer-based program is currently operating out of Heathrow airport in London, England, on flights between New York, Hong Kong and Singapore. A dedicated testing facility has been set up at Heathrow to support testing for app volunteers.

“Without the ability to trust COVID-19 tests — and eventually vaccine records — across international borders, many countries will feel compelled to retain full travel bans and mandatory quarantines for as long as the pandemic persists,” said Dr Bradley Perkins of the Commons Project, the branch of the World Economic Forum which is in part backing the venture, in a press release.

The approach is entirely dependent on countries trusting international test processes and results. The app will only accept results from “certified” labs in an attempt to standardize results, despite country specific regulations. When a vaccine becomes available, the app is expected to display vaccine certification.

We’re looking forward to reviewing the findings of these trials and using the learnings to support the recovery of an industry that provides so many jobs and economic opportunities globally

However, according to the World Health Organization, simply sharing test results may not be enough to keep the public safe. They claim that an antibody test is what is needed for immunity passport success, but these tests are not yet available.

Emirates’ rapid pre-flight immunity screening was withdrawn after it was shown to only have a 30 per cent success rate. Inaccurate results could have granted travellers “immunity” status even if they never contracted the virus.

“In case of the rapid testing kits, the antibodies develop after 5-7 or more days so it is not advisable for early detection and the current kits are not reliable,” said Dr Anthony Thomas, director of diagnostics division at Prime Hospital, told Healthcare IT News.

In May Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye publicly championed immunity passports like CommonPass.

“If the UK government, with one of the biggest aviation sectors in the world, were to get together with the European Union and United States, between them they’d have the global diplomatic and economic power to set the international standard,” said Holland-Kaye.

CommonPass comes into play as the U.K. postpones COVID-19 airport testing, which was expected to begin this week. Travellers should not anticipate this until November at the earliest.

“We’re looking forward to reviewing the findings of these [CommonPass] trials and using the learnings to support the recovery of an industry that provides so many jobs and economic opportunities globally,” Heathrow’s process improvement director Mark Burgess told the Daily Mail.


The U.K. was previously considering similar models from companies such as Yoti, Onfido, and Nomidio.  In their proposal, Onfido said immunity passports are “the linchpin of a new normality.”

Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Israel, Colombia, Argentina, Estonia and the U.S. are also considering implementing immunity passports like CommonPass.

The conversation around what it may look like to return to travel has been a lingering question since lockdown first began. As the public largely waits for better transmission control or a vaccine to seriously consider travel, the travel industry becomes increasingly crippled.

In July, Air Canada announced a $1.75 billion loss in their first quarter due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the first three months of the pandemic, its revenue plummeted by 89 per cent. Globally, the tourism industry is expected to see a trillion loss and 100 million job cuts by the end of the pandemic.

“It is imperative that we rebuild the tourism sector,” said secretary-general of the United Nations António Guterres. ”But it must be in a way that is safe, equitable and climate friendly.”

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