Inside SITA’s new health data sharing platform for air travel

Leading airport technology provider SITA recently launched Health Protect, a new solution offering a secure, contactless way to share and review passenger health information during the Covid-19 pandemic. Frankie Youd spoke to Andy Smith, director of global government and industry relations at SITA, to ask about the platform and what the future might hold for airports and airlines.

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way airlines and airports operate for the foreseeable future when it comes to boarding, contactless systems and Covid-19 test requirements.

New rules and regulations have seen airport staff and government officials having to monitor passenger health information more stringently than ever.

Health Protect offers an industry solution that enables important health information to be shared and linked to test results, allowing airport officials to make informed decisions.

Andy Smith, director of global government and industry relations at SITA, explains how Health Protect is set to benefit the industry and how it can be integrated with health passports.

health data sharing airports

Andy Smith, director of global government and industry relations at SITA. Credit: SITA

Frankie Youd: Could you tell me a little bit about Health Protect and how it works?

Andy Smith: SITA products and solutions, as well as third parties, try to bridge the gap between existing operational processes for airports, airlines and governments, with the new requirements related to Covid-19.

It started in March last year when we were approached by Australia and New Zealand who needed support in managing their borders and protecting their citizens. We recognised that the industry needed to find a way [to recover] from the impacts of the pandemic.

We started looking at developing our existing Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA); we thought we could reuse that expertise and infrastructure to develop a health ETA. What we recognised is that it was very much self-declaration; many governments want the ability to upload certificates and tests as well. So, Health Protect was created.

We work with hundreds of airlines through our advanced passenger processing, which enables governments to deny boarding to someone based on immigration or security concerns. So, we started looking at reengineering that to deliver a board/no board decision based on somebody's health status and their Covid-19 test results.

What are the benefits of using Health Protect? What challenges is it trying to solve?

I think the main benefit is scalability. We can see that you have a valid Covid-19 test that allows you to travel and it was taken at the right time to the right specifications. We can also make sure you are living up to your boarding pass, that you have the right to fly, you're at the right terminal and it hasn't been used before.

Linking all that together should mean that as you go through the airport and present your QR code, all those checks are validated, as a passenger you shouldn't experience any additional steps.

The benefit to the industry is that we can demonstrate that we can implement travel safely and securely. That should deliver confidence. It should deliver confidence to us as travellers, that we can book a holiday safely and securely, as well as delivering confidence to governments so that they can reopen borders securely and safely. That's what we want to achieve: safe and secure travel for everybody.

Can Health Protect be integrated with health passport schemes, such as ones created by IATA and AOK?

Yes, they will have subtle differences because there are multiple schemes and some handle data in different ways. Many go down what's called a decentralised identity. Essentially, what that does is give you control over your data. Once you've done a Covid-19 test, it's loaded into your wallet as a verified credential.

You want to be in control of what you share so that means that, if you want to travel, you would make a conscious decision to share your test result with Health Protect.

It's not sharing anything apart from that you have had a negative Covid-19 test that is compliant according to the scheme rules. You're not sharing any sensitive information, you're sharing the fact that you have the right to travel [and that] you have the right test.

health data sharing airports

Credit: SITA

You recently tested the platform — what did you learn from this?

We did a small-scale trial paired with a company called ION, a group of companies based in the United Arab Emirates, Germany and Estonia. We wanted to prove that Health Protect could seamlessly integrate and plug these additional checks into our advanced passenger processing deployment. We were able to show that passengers were positively verified to board that flight.

The airline and the airport didn't have to change any process whatsoever. It was all handled in the background. Going forward, we want to be able to plug these additional checks as seamlessly as possible. We're working to create a Covid-19-free, or as Covid-19-secure as possible experience for passengers to demonstrate that it's possible to do so.

We are in conversation with many airports, airlines and governments. One of the main things we're trying to do with Health Protect is future proofing. Testing is the most critical thing in the travel process.

Given the ongoing pandemic, what do you think the future holds for airports and airlines?

It's very hard to say. Looking at things like Airports Council International, we are looking at a recovery by 2024. I would say that Health Data is going to be a requirement for the short and medium term.

We also want to help airports capitalise on investments already made. Before Covid-19, many airports and the industry were looking at ways of having a seamless passenger experience. This has been accelerated by Covid-19 with the need to move to a touchless experience, minimising contact points within an airport. Health Protect is another way of enabling that.

Of course, we also need to have a system that deals with manual processes, that still processes papers for those travellers who don't want to share biometrics, who don't have a smartphone or need more assistance. We want to help with all passengers, not just those who have a smartphone and who are happy with technology.

Do you have anything else you think our readers should know?

SITA wants the industry to recover safety and securely, we all want to travel. What we are trying to do with Health Protect is enable that link between Covid-19 testing regimes and requirements — which are rightly needed currently to keep everybody safe and secure — with the existing airline airport and government processes.

Blending those together is what Help Protect does. We want to accelerate that recovery where we can and work with stakeholders to deliver a safe, secure and more confident environment for everybody.