Phony COVID-19 certificates being used to board planes sparking talk of digital health pass

Passengers are increasingly presenting fake COVID-19 health certificates to airlines in order to board planes, which is creating a new headache for an industry still struggling to recover from a global travel slump due to the pandemic.

As The Wall Street Journal reported Monday, negative COVID-19 test results are a prerequisite in many countries and must be presented on arrival, but according to the International Air Transport Association, the industry group “has tracked fake certificates in multiple countries, from France to Brazil, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.”

The IATA also said that police and border enforcement authorities are experiencing an uptick in arrests of people who are selling forged COVID documents in several countries including the United Kingdom, Zimbabwe, and Indonesia.

The group says that the problem is plaguing international flights far more than domestic ones which, at present, do not require the COVID document to board planes. But airlines that fly across borders and internationally say they are growing more concerned about the issue as summer approaches and as they hope that demand for air travel will rebound.

In April, the WSJ reported separately that airlines were generally in favor of COVID-19 certificates but that they did not want to bear the cost of dealing with them.

“Vaccines are what is going to ultimately allow us to start recovering as an industry,” Olivier Jankovec, director-general of Airports Council International Europe, an airport trade group, told the paper. “It’s what is going to allow Europeans to be mobile again.”

Europe’s solution is an electronic concept known as the “Digital Green Certificate” which, officials said last month, was being planned for an early June rollout. And while airlines reportedly favor them, they objected to being handed the costs of having to validate and enforce them.

“While airlines back the effort, they are lobbying against initial proposals that could hand them the responsibility for making the system work. They also are resisting the idea of bar-code scanning at airports, saying that could increase wait times at check-in,” the WSJ reported. “Many airports already are straining with long lines, under the weight of new health checks required of fliers during the pandemic.”

In the meantime, however, fake health certificates are further complicating the objectives of ensuring people are moving safely about the continent and the world while at the same time attempting to make compliance easier and enticing more people to travel.

Airlines told the WSJ that workers don’t have all the tools necessary to both handle verification of certificates as well as ensure that they are valid. What’s more, airlines are reportedly concerned that eventually, some countries will additionally require so-called “vaccine passports” for travel, which could only bog the system down and further dampen travel.

One solution being pushed by airlines is the creation of a digital health pass that is capable of storing COVID-19 test and antibody results as well as vaccination information. Industry officials believe such an electronic verification process will make it much easier for airline staff to check the veracity of vaccine information far more quickly.

That said, Akbar Al Baker, the CEO of Qatar Airways Ltd., said such a system “will not stop people still trying to bring fraudulent certificates,” according to the WSJ.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated recently that 120 countries are using coronavirus testing of international and out-of-country passengers. The agency also said the U.S. requires flights entering the country to have verified passengers’ negative COVID test or recovery from the disease.

As governments increasingly want airlines to check for COVID authenticity like they have to verify passports and other travel documents, airlines are increasingly pushing back.

“We cannot have either our crews or the people at Heathrow or other airports verifying the authenticity of all these documents,” Virgin Atlantic Airways Chief Executive Shai Weiss told the WSJ. “That will take too much time, and we’ve seen queues and processing times moving up by two to three times at the airport.”

Jon Dougherty

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