United Airlines tests COVID-19 'health pass' app to bring back global travel

Volunteer travelers flying from London to Newark, New Jersey, tested out a CommonPass health pass on their mobile phone to document their COVID-19 status and share it with airline staff upon disembarking from the aircraft. (The Common Project Foundation)

United Airlines tested this week a digital health pass on a flight from London to Newark, New Jersey, as part of a program to enable safer global travel and accelerate border reopenings.

The CommonPass mobile app, created by the Commons Project Foundation and the World Economic Forum, was developed to enable travelers to share their COVID-19 test status across borders using a trusted framework for the first time.

It was the first transatlantic trial of CommonPass, following a successful earlier trial with Cathay Pacific Airways between Hong Kong and Singapore earlier this month, according to the organizations.

Volunteer travelers landing at Newark Liberty International Airport on United Airlines Flight 15 from London's Heathrow Airport used the CommonPass health pass on their mobile phone to document their COVID-19 status and share it with airline staff upon disembarking from the aircraft.

RELATED: United Airlines teams up with Color to make COVID-19 tests available to passengers

At present, COVID-19 test results for travel are frequently shared on pieces of paper—or photos of the paper—from unknown labs, often written in languages foreign to those inspecting them. The lack of a standard test result format and certification system leave room for confusion and falsification of results.

The purpose of CommonPass and the CommonPass framework is to enable safer airline and cross-border travel by giving both travelers and governments confidence in each traveler's verified COVID-19 status, according to Commons Project Foundation officials.

"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 Bradley Perkins, M.D., chief medical officer of The Commons Project and former chief strategy and innovation officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

With trusted individual health data, countries can implement more nuanced health screening requirements for entry, Perkins said.

The Commons Project will begin rolling out the digital health pass to more of the largest airlines with plans to launch routes across Asia, Africa, the Americas, Europe and the Middle East in November and December, according to Paul Meyer, CEO of The Commons Project.

RELATED: Mayo Clinic, startup launch 'health passport' app with initial focus on COVID-19

Investment bank Jefferies put out a report on Tuesday about CommonPass, describing it as a potential way to reopen international travel.

"Neither COVID testing nor vaccines are a silver bullet, in our view. However, the combination of rapid testing, vaccines and the CommonPass digital health pass could offer a way forward,” said Sandy Morris, an equity analyst at Jefferies. “The open question is how fast a digital solution like CommonPass can be deployed. Our guess is it will be rapid.”

In September, United Airlines announced it was working with health technology and genomics company Color to roll out the first COVID-19 testing program for air travelers.

"Testing is a key component of a multi-layered approach to safely reopening travel. Trials with solutions like CommonPass are critical to demonstrate the potential for alternatives to blanket quarantine measures or travel restrictions," said Steve Morrissey, United’s vice president, regulatory and policy, in a statement.