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Facilitating responsible travel in times of pandemics (Part 2)

Updated: Sep 25, 2020

Part 2: tools and processes

Both domestic and international travels have been heavily limited in the fight to limit the spreading of COVID-19 and breaking the curve. Many countries and their population managed this in the first wave quite well, thanks to their strong economy and wealth. Others, as many as 100 countries and especially their poverty stricken population are struggling, forced into compromises. This series of publications seeks to spark further thoughts into a responsible international travel scheme during this and future pandemics. Part 1 covered the general assumptions and boundaries, reflections on risk management and commercial impacts. Part 2 studies tools and processes that might lead the way to an open new normal. Part 3 expands on some select case-studies currently deployed and discusses some up- and downsides. Part 4 elaborates on the travel industry in change. Part 5 sheds some light on various solution components and how they fall in place.


By Stephan D. Hofstetter, Managing Partner SECOIA Executive Consultants Ltd


In part 1 of this series we have made the assumption that international travel for both business and private reasons must be made easier in the medium term. The challenges lie in risk management and in finding appropriate policies, standard operating procedures and tools to facilitate and enforce responsible travel. In this second part, we will look at the system of instruments and processes to be considered.

Risk factors and sources of data

To determine the risk parameters of individuals based on current knowledge about the spread of the virus, we can consider five data clusters. The first four are preventive, the last reactive:

  • Demographic data

  • Exposure behaviour

  • Self-protective behaviour

  • Health

  • Track and Isolate

Demographic data takes into account where the centre of your life is located (country or region of residence), your age, gender, occupation, ethnicity, and perhaps some other elements that we will discuss below. Based on developing statistical evidence, there may be relevant indicators that can be extracted from these data. Some of this data can be collected from the Advanced Passenger Information Records (API) for air travel, an advanced e-Visa application and travel registration forms. Many of these factors can be checked for evidence based on existing processes and tools already established in the travel ecosystem. Also, most of the factors will not change on a regular basis, which provides long-term stability and a source of cross-reference. The challenge is rather that science must be able to create meaningful and fair profiles and limit both false negative and false positive outcomes.

The factors based on exposure behaviour are more profound when it comes to determining the probability of being exposed to the virus:

  • Does the person avoid gatherings of people (e.g. nightlife) and/or does he/she restrict his/her geographical area of movement etc.?

  • And, what is the exposure of people living in the same household? This could be an important factor in the assessment: For example, while the person himself might be very careful and even live in quarantine, his family members might be at increased risk working as healthcare professionals.

The generation of this data is a challenge within the limits of data protection regulations. It is also a challenge within the system, as the country of destination must rely on foreign information and tools and comply with the various local laws. The registration of the housing situation can be recorded using the above-mentioned form, but its accuracy cannot be validated. For exposure measurement, authorities could consider using the different national COVID tracking apps. However, extensions are needed to provide a meaningful interface and data set for such an evaluation. The national tracking apps must integrate a universal interface that respects privacy and provides international authorities with a clear understanding of

  1. How long has the app been in continuous operation (app running, Bluetooth active)

  2. Link the app to a person (i.e. passport/ID number; photo; name)

  3. Evidence that the app has actually been with the person (e.g. use of accelerometers, screen time or activity monitoring).

  4. Unified output interface of exposure risk

Some governments decided to use GPS data or QR Code based check-in processes at various locations of interest, such as shops. Other countries, including most European countries, use the Google/Apple Tracking interface, excluding the use of GPS. For this reason, a universal model based on the movement of the individual is not realistic. It could be considered to use a anonymised mobility data: Either by use of GPS-data, or mobile phones connect their users to telecommunications and Internet networks via cell phone towers. When a mobile phone moves with its user, the phone pings near mobile phone masts. This process generates location information that can be used to represent the movement of groups of people, similar to traffic jam visualizations.

The direct assessment of self-protective behaviour with the question: "Does a person adhere to the health authority measures of social distance, to hygienic rules, the use of personal protective equipment?" is beyond the realm of possibility in a free world. Here, too, a demographic risk assessment could indirectly help: "Is there sufficient protective material and understanding among the group of people to which the potential traveller belongs to provide reasonable grounds for assuming effective self-protection? However, creating a sufficient evidence-based data set that goes beyond any discrimination might prove this dimension impractical.

The current health assessment can be structured in four layers:

  • The first is the self-declaration of symptoms. Some countries ask general questions about the well-being of passengers. Others ask specific questions about symptoms, such as fever, respiratory issues, impaired taste and smell sensation, body aches, etc. If the forms are submitted online, the answers cannot be validated by the authorities as they may change within an hour. Therefore, a risk assessment that exonerates the person has less value than one that comes to a negative conclusion based on the data provided.

  • The second element is the request for a current COVID-19 PCR test report. The time frame ranges from 48 hours before travel (Equatorial Guinea) to 10 days (Bahamas), with a 72-hour limit in most countries. Several countries, including China, will perform a COVID 19 PCR test upon arrival. This approach serves the national need for protection. However, it does not give travellers sufficient certainty that they can reach the objective of their travels. In addition, the false negative / false positive rates of testing based on the methods, test equipment or execution of tests must be considered.

  • The third is to examine people at the airport and place them in waiting rooms or quarantine until the results are available for further processing.

  • The fourth is the popular but controversial temperature scanning, which is carried out as border screening. With detection rates below 50% and many false positive results, the opportunity costs are considerable. It would be interesting to know about scientific considerations for testing the taste and smell sensory perception of travellers, e.g. by offering to try one of several sweets with commonly known flavours and verifying the ability to respond correctly.

Finally, the reactive measures of track and isolate. On arrival in a country, the centre of focus shifts. The emphasis shifts to the tracking of persons who themselves represent a risk or have been exposed to risks. IATA and the airlines make use of the well-known instruments of the Passenger Locator Forms (PLF). The aim of these forms is to determine the risk exposure during the stay in the aircraft - based on the seat number - and to be able to contact the persons in case of need after arrival at the destination. Since the forms are filled out on paper in the aircraft, the contact details cannot be verified. A detour via the Passenger Name Records (PNR) and above mentioned API data could eliminate some of the sources of error. Ultimately, one must assume that the passenger is of good will and acknowledges the importance of this exercise. Online forms can use a challenge-response mechanism to ensure that a person can be contacted at least by the e-mail address or mobile phone number provided.

Selected countries require the use of their local tracking apps, which goes beyond the mere registration of contacts. They provide a communication channel or even localization. In part 3 of this series we will look at some of these mechanisms.

Further considerations on the use of tools

On one hand, approaching the subject from an industrialized and IT-affine world doesn't go far enough and is even discriminating. On the other hand, the wealth of the privileged society bears additional risks to be considered, when making use of tracking devices and apps:

  • One person - One device: Many people own several devices, suitable for running the governmental tracking apps. As such there is a threat for cheating the sensors, especially for people able to travel by air.

  • One device - one person: In vast regions the availability of suitable devices is not given on a personal basis, but perhaps per family or clan. Enforcing technical tracking and sensors on a personal basis causes risk of exclusion for economic, gender or cultural discrimination.

  • "A device is not necessarily a suitable device". This again can pause a risk of exclusion of poorer or elderly, less technology affine societies. Rumours suggest, that Apple and Alphabet are considering improving legacy support. However, persons using Blackberry, Windows Mobile or even T9-phones are still out of luck.

  • Network coverage is not complete, and not necessarily affordable. Primarily, this does not impact the tracking devices. However, it does have consequences for filling in online-forms or receiving travel certificates. For such cases, the authorities need to work with the town-halls, NGOs and commerce to provide internet-café or kiosk style solutions providing accessibility

  • Output devices / printers are not generally available: As above for network coverage, devices and printers are not always available, or suitable to print usable certificates with QR-codes.

Science, legal framework, technical feasibility and coordinated agreements are important factors. However, orchestrating them effectively is a major challenge in view of the many unknowns. A look at reference projects and the resulting findings is a resource that needs to be investigated. The next article will describe such use cases and disseminate findings. Please do not hesitate to comment in a constructive and solution-oriented manner. We look forward to further developing the approach together with the professional community.


About SECOIA Executive Consultants Ltd

We are a network of experienced professionals working in the public sector and specialized industry. Our mission is to consult the involved parties and join needs and solutions as match makers. We oversee the identification of requirements, development, evaluation, search and implementation.



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