Will Covid Passports Save Travel?

Travelocity founder and “digital disruptor” Terrell Jones looks to restore traveler confidence.

Covid Passport App Terrell Jones

When will people have the confidence to book flights again? Airlines lost $118.5 billion in net profits last year, and our hopes for a swift vaccination process that resurrects travel have yet to been realized.

Newly mandated health safeguards in air travel could lay the groundwork for a safe return, yet airline executives worry that too many requirements could bankrupt their businesses. International travelers need proof of a negative Covid test to enter the U.S., but that isn’t required for domestic travel — at least not yet. How do we settle on an agreeable path forward?

Terrell Jones, the “digital disruptor” who founded Travelocity and Kayak, among other trailblazing startups, is working on that. I talked with Jones, now a speaker, author and venture capitalist, about his thoughts on testing and his efforts to establish digital health passports for domestic and international travelers. Following are highlights from our interview, edited for length and clarity. Listen to our 24-minute discussion here

Do you think Covid tests for domestic air travel should be required?
Domestic testing, at this point, is really a bridge too far. Until we have wide delivery of rapid tests — and they're coming — it simply doesn't make sense. Also, as the airlines have pointed out, more people are traveling by car than by air. But what are we doing about car travel? Drivers are not tested; we don't have border control between the states.

The talk of testing seems really focused on one industry that has already taken a tremendous beating. So, I don't think that makes sense right now, although we will be seeing a proliferation of 15-minute Covid tests you can do at home, which will be terrifically useful if they are approved for travel.

What is your outlook on the return of large meetings?
I'm a public speaker, and we're seeing a lot of meetings being booked for the late fall with the hope that they can be held. In fact, President Biden said in his open forum last week that he thinks everybody in the country who wants to be vaccinated can be vaccinated by July.

But even so, are our insurance carriers and lawyers going to say we can get 5,000 people into a room in the fall, when some people won't be vaccinated, and vaccinated people might still be contagious? I think it's up in the air. I think both for international travel and perhaps for larger domestic meetings, we're going to need to be able to identify ourselves as being either vaccinated or tested or both. 

Should airports provide on-site antigen tests?
I think the more people are tested the better, but the industry is in pretty tough shape. The question has to be to the scientists: Are the tests good enough and reliable? If we're going to do this, let's have national testing, as many other countries do, where we aggressively test in businesses, in all kinds of industrial settings, and in travel, because we've seen that it works. There are some great university examples where they tested people frequently and isolated those who had a positive test, and they were able to run a normal operation. But we're not there yet as a country. There simply isn't enough testing. So, it'd be great to have testing at airports, and many airports around the world are doing it, but most of those are very small countries with a small number of airlines.

At some point, could we put the onus on the individual and require that people test themselves before walking out the door to go anywhere?
Actually, I was introduced to a technology last week that might allow us to do that. It's under NDA — I can't talk about it — but a pretty fascinating technology is being tested that could actually allow for each of us very cheaply to get a good idea if we were infected or not. It’s a pretty accurate and inexpensive test that's just been patented, and they're just bringing it to market.

Let’s talk about the concept of a Covid passport. How do you envision that working?
I think it can work. Many of them are coming into the market right now. They involve a bunch of steps: The traveler downloads an app, and then, hopefully, the lab or hospital will upload their test results. When you show up at the airport, the airline can scan the QR code in that app.

Terrell Jones Digital Covid Passports
Terrell Jones

At this point, a lot of people are uploading their own results, which then have to get reviewed and checked. The airline or whoever's checking you has to go out and ping that system to say, is this valid? Has Terry really been vaccinated and tested? I was recently vaccinated at my fire department, and I got this little cardboard card that says I had a Covid shot. It's not signed, it's not stamped, I could make it in Photoshop in five minutes. So, that isn't going to work. I've yet to be able to get a digital representation of my vaccine that I can upload.

What has to happen to improve this process?
I live in Nevada, and I've been working with my senators on this. They’re going to reach out to Health and Human Services and others in the government and say, “Everybody should be able to get digital proof of their vaccination.” Now the Covid test results are much easier to access. You can get those online, print them out, upload them. So that's one part of the issue. The other part is that these various passports should be interoperable. Let's say I’m running a convention; I don't want to have people coming in who took 20 different kinds of tests and I need to have 20 different apps to read them.

Over time, I think we could get some standards on the document itself so it's easy to read. If Customs and Border Control said, “this is our format,” everybody would code to that format. It can be done, but it's going to take some will. The industry, particularly on the convention side, has the leverage to talk to their senators, congressmen, government officials to say, “We need help. Let's get this done right.”

Can we establish that kind of system on a global level?
President Biden has issued an executive order asking several government departments to work together on this, and to work with international organizations to get that done. I think it can be done. Tony Blair, the former U.K. Prime Minister, just came out saying that his organization is working hard with other governments, because he doesn't think travel will come back without some form of documentation.

Will conference organizers start requiring proof of negative tests or vaccines?
I think it's an interesting question. A lot of people have a fear of travel, fear of Covid and fear of being with a lot of people. I think planners want to get a lot of people together, it sounds like a pretty good idea to make people feel safe. I also think there are some interesting legal and insurance implications here. We're going to have to see what our lawyers and insurance companies say about large gatherings.