COVID Finally Forces Airlines to Help Travelers With International Travel Rules

Technology

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I’ve gone back into The Airchive’s archives — say that five times fast — and found LIES. You find me the person that was glad when PSA became part of USAir. I’m waiting. No? That’s what I thought. There is an incredible wealth of timetable images in here ranging from random airlines I’ve never heard of like Air Bahia to big, old line carriers that no longe graceour skies. Explore more timetables at theairchive.net.


Quick, if you want to go to Dubai right now, what do you need to do? Unless you’ve been planning that trip yourself and have already done extensive research, there is likely no way you have any clue what you need. This has always been an issue for travelers with visas and passport rules, but now it’s out of control with COVID-19 rules thrown on top. For years, the airlines have completely ignored playing any part in making it easier for travelers to know and understand the rules, but with COVID raging, they have finally started to address the issue. United’s entry into the race announced this week — the Travel-Ready Center — is the best effort yet.

Before COVID-19, travelers still needed to understand what the rules for passports and visas were for their trips. Do I need a visa? How do I get it? How much validity do I need on my passport? Do I need any immunizations? There was a lot to consider, and the airlines barely bothered trying to help.

The best tool to navigate the mess is called TIMATIC, and it’s put out by IATA. As far as I know, IATA won’t let anyone use it for free. It’s for subscribers only. Fortunately, some companies make it available for everyone. I generally use the United website to access TIMATIC, but no matter what you use, the information is the same.

[Updated: It looks like IATA does allow some free use at IATA TravelCentre, but this is the same info you can get elsewhere. The COVID map there now allows for limited free usage.]

TIMATIC now has COVID-related information in it, but the information is presented, well, it’s presented as you’d expect a quasi-governmental organization to present it. Let’s stick with that Dubai trip. First, you can’t just say you’re going to Dubai. You have to put in the United Arab Emirates. Then it spits this out this garbage:

It’s not until the fourth line that I figure out I can go to Dubai, I think. But this is nothing. Just wait….

Have you lost your mind yet? This is just the passport section. For visas…

Fortunately there are no immunization requirements, or this would be even longer. And of course, this doesn’t even address the fact that testing is now required to return to the US as well. What a damn mess. If I’m planning to go to Dubai, I can’t keep this straight very easily.

Apparently airlines didn’t care about this before, but since COVID-19 has decimated travel, airlines have now finally started trying to help passengers figure out the rules so they can get people back onboard. The initial efforts have been better than TIMATIC… but not good enough.

United has its restrictions map, for example, but that still requires clicking on the country and then interpreting the information to know how it applies in your specific situation. Delta has the exact same map, but it throws in a dangerously misleading warning at the top, at least for the UAE.

Say what now? Most Americans can go to the UAE, at least the parts they’re likely to want to go to. This is just making things worse.

American did the best implementation by far with its Sherpa partnership that launched last November. You enter your origin and destination along with the travel date, and you get a far more accurate picture than the other airlines provide without having to sift through all the country-specific information.

We are making some progress, but this still isn’t good enough. Now that test requirements are becoming more commonplace, that needs to be managed as well. It’s not just about learning the rules anymore. It’s managing the information needed and ensuring that everything is in order.

American announced a couple weeks ago that it would expand its partnership with VeriFLY, a company it began working with on a trial basis last November. That’s an external app that travelers can download. It’s a digital health passport, so basically what it does is allows you to upload your test results and any other requirements. It then confirms whether or not you meet the requirements to enter the country (or state, for that matter) and gives a pass/fail message. If you show that upon boarding, the airline knows you are cleared to go and the whole process gets simplified. Now we’re cooking with gas, but it can be better.

United has effectively done this and calls it the Travel-Ready Center. It’s integrating requirements, test results, and all of that stuff directly into the United app and on the United website. This means you no longer even need to say where you’re going. United just looks at the reservation, determines the requirements, and lets you know if you have everything you need for the trip. This is how it should work. It only took us a year after the pandemic began to get there.

With the platform built, United is adding new features as it goes. Next month, travelers will have the ability to schedule a COVID test around the world in the app, so you can get tested before coming back to the US without having to search out a location and contact the place on your own. It’s also going to integrate an agent-on-demand feature so that travelers can ask United agents directly if they have questions about all these requirements.

This is how travel always should have been handled, but airlines either couldn’t bother to prioritize the work, or they didn’t want any liability for giving incorrect information. It’s amazing how things change in a pandemic. In this case, they’ve changed for the better.

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12 comments on “COVID Finally Forces Airlines to Help Travelers With International Travel Rules

  1. Cranky, have airlines had to incur significant additional costs due to pax not understanding the requirements (e.g., pax refused entry to a country), or is this more of a customer service play to help passengers plan trips and possibly stimulate/capture a little more demand?

    I assume Cranky Concierge has been going crazy trying to help its clients with these rules as well.

    Also, with the rules/requirements changing frequently, are the change fee / cancellation rules for international trips still pretty forgiving with most airlines?

    Finally, and I mean this as a compliment, if you hadn’t said otherwise I would have bet good money that the AA screenshot was from a Google site. Very clean and easily understandable design, relevant summary that can be viewed at a glance yet still click through to the details and source materials, even very similar icons to those that Google uses… Quite impressed by that, kudos to the designer that AA hired to present that information.

    I’m actually surprised that Google (or one of the other airfare price comparison sites) hasn’t come up with something similar, just as a marketing effort to drive usage of their site/tool, but I can only imagine all the work that is involved in keeping those requirements/policies updated on a daily basis.

    1. Kilroy – I honestly don’t know how much of a cost has been involved in passengers not knowing rules. I just assume this is entirely a marketing effort to get people booking tickets again. This isn’t about people who are already flying; it’s about getting more people in the air. And yes, we’ve had a heck of a time at Cranky Concierge staying on top of all this.
      It is not easy. Change fees are very flexible right now, but refunds still aren’t. It is incredibly easy to change though.

      Lastly, on American, all the credit for that design goes to Sherpa. It’s just a co-branded arrangement between the two.

    2. Not quite Google-y for what it’s worth. Somewhat similar design language (“cards”, square buttons, etc.) but Google’s Material Design is super distinctive, and this ain’t it.

      1. Ah, I’m sure you know more about it than I do, so you’re probably right.

        I’m not a graphic designer, and don’t know the ins and outs of different companies’ design & branding guidelines, but I do appreciate decent design when I see it, and (from my layman’s point of view, without digging into the nuts and bolts) I think Sherpa did a solid job with the design. Certainly it could be much, much worse.

  2. Yet we’ve already heard the horror stories of some airline rep misquoting or misunderstanding visa and passport rules erroneously and we’re really to believe they’ll be able to decipher Covid-19 restrictions on top of that? Couple that with connections in/out of various locations or countries.

  3. RE international travel: Our daughter lives in France and we plan to go in late April. At present three of her friends/colleagues (all Americans) have traveled to France and where they have had the most hassle has been on this side of the journey with the US airline staff being quite confused. That is, theoretically in order to travel to and enter France (as part of the EU) there are a set of documents that have to be completed…one with categories of allowed purposes for travel. Also, of course, proof of a negative COVID test within 72 hours of boarding your flight. In each case the US airline folks have created some hassle, not about the EU papers, but about the evidence presented relative to a negative test. In one instance requiring the traveler to delay by one day their departure in order to get some sort of additional documentation to satisfy the airline agents.

    Each of these folks assured the airline people that they would have no problem entering France…and once allowed to travel that was indeed true.
    Upon presenting themselves at CDG passport control, all that was requested was a passport and the proof of a negative test…that is, none of the other paperwork that the website says is required. In short, the US airline folks have no idea what is required. I have even gone out to the airport and had a chat with an American Air agent (I’m a million miler etc.) and basically was told that as long as I showed a required negative test and had the papers in my possession I would be allowed to board. In late April, we shall see. Not only will be have a negative test but also a record of having gotten the vaccine.

    Some context, we are over 70 and will have our vaccine finished in a day or two…we have been very frequent travellers to France over the past 15+ years…the bottom line is, at least in terms of first hand information we have from other seasoned US citizen travellers to France, the French seem to be their usual “easy going” selves when it comes to applying the posted EU rules for US citizens. That all may seem counterintuitive to some, but our information is not second hand but from individuals with whom we are acquainted.

    Just thought I would share this.

    1. Gary – This is exactly why the American partnership with VeriFLY and the United Travel-Ready Center matter. These will give a clear way for agents to know if the requirements have been met or not just by looking at it. It should make travel much easier at the airport.

  4. Having managed a 30+ country project, and project members with different citizenships, managing visa requirements and applying for visas became almost a full time job. This is also where I learned that the airport employees will read the TIMATIC rules literally. In one case, I was nearly denied boarding because I did not have a visa application in hand (that was one of the requirements in TIMATIC), even though one can apply for a visa upon arrival. The employee resolved the issue by printing out an application for me.

  5. Some years ago I worked for Federal Express (the predecessor to Fedex) and marveled at the job they did gathering up all the information required to ship anything, anywhere in the world! When you think of the 1,000’s of commodities, and 100’s of countries, all with their different requirements I was very impressed at how easy they made it.

    Fedex may not have been the first, but their end result was one of the simplest to use. Clearly, it took effort to pull it all together, but when you have the resolve to get it done, it will happen.

    I would like to think that the World Health Organization could do the job and gather all the information for passengers to leave, and to enter every country in the world, but I suspect ugly politics would get in the way…… Too bad!

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