Airports are at capacity with just 5 per cent of pre-COVID traffic because of pandemic measures
Just as the 9/11 attacks did 20 years ago, the COVID-19 pandemic will transform the way people travel internationally — with hundreds of millions of dollars in new government spending planned for modernizing border security and updating public health measures at airports.
In the recent federal budget, the federal government announced $82.5 million to fund COVID-19 testing infrastructure at Canadian airports and another $6.7 million to buy sanitization equipment for the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority.
Ottawa also has earmarked $656.1 million over five years to modernize Canada's border security.
Daniel Gooch, president of the Canadian Airports Council, said the country's flight hubs still have no clear idea of what is expected of them.
"We've been hoping to have meaningful discussions with government about how to do that for quite some time but, unfortunately, at this point we have no insight into what the different phases of restoration of air travel will look like," Gooch told CBC News.
Gooch said that the four Canadian airports that are still accepting international flights are operating at about five per cent of their pre-COVID levels — but with the current COVID-19 public health measures in place, they are at capacity.
"Part of the problem is the insistence on the two-metre physical distance," he said. "You very quickly hit capacity when you make that requirement. So we can't grow the numbers and keep everything the way it is right now. It's not physically possible."
Canada isn't permitting non-essential international travel yet — although Canadians returning home and travellers with exemptions, such as essential workers, are allowed to enter Canada providing they follow certain protocols.
On Feb. 22, the federal government implemented new quarantine measures at airports requiring that all air travellers returning from non-essential trips abroad take polymerase chain reaction tests — commonly known as PCR tests — 72 hours before they fly.
That test result has to be provided to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) upon arrival. Travellers then need to take a second test and isolate in federally mandated facilities for up to 72 hours while they await the results.
Gooch said that while the funding for testing infrastructure at airports is welcome, testing cannot continue to take place in airports once pre-COVID levels of air travel return.
He said that offering passengers take-home tests, or directing arrivals to off-site testing centres close to the airport, would free up space in terminals and allow more passengers to be processed.
"We were quite pleased to see in the federal budget the Canada Border Services Agency getting some significant funds for border modernization, which will include things like touchless technology and less contact in terms of interactions with border services," he said.
At the heart of the move to touchless travel is a trial the federal government is undertaking with the World Economic Forum and The Netherlands called the "Known Traveller Digital Identity" project, or KTDI.
The project began with the publication of a white paper back in 2018 and was seen as a way to modernize air travel by moving passengers through airports faster. That white paper said that a new, touchless system was needed as the number of international air arrivals was expected to increase 50 per cent from 2016 to 2030.
With international travel almost at a standstill now, the technology is seen as a way to facilitate a return to pre-COVID levels of air traffic.
The touchless travel experience
Under the KTDI plan, a digital form of identification is created that contains the traveller's identity, boarding passes, vaccination history and information on whether they've recovered from COVID-19. Travellers with KTDI documentation would still have to face a customs officer, but all other points of contact in an airport could become touchless.
"We're still talking about a world where you'll need to carry your passport because it is an international border," said a senior CBSA official, speaking on background.
"We're not talking about replacing your passport. But the number of times you have to take out that document, or your boarding pass, to substantiate who you are and where you need to be, gets reduced."
The official said the KTDI program is still in its early stages and technological issues are still being worked out. He said that privacy protections would have to be in place before any such system could be launched.
"It's not like the Government of Canada holds that information in a central place, or airlines hold it in a central place, or border agencies hold it in a central place," the official said. "It's the traveller themselves that holds their own information."
Vaccinated vs. unvaccinated travellers
A CBSA spokesperson told CBC News that the $656.1 million federal investment in border security modernization over five years will fund other "digital self-service tools" that will "reduce touchpoints" and create more "automated interactions" at Canadian airports
The CBSA said more information on those measures will be released to the public "in the coming weeks."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is attending the G7 summit in the United Kingdom this weekend, where leaders are expected to discuss international vaccination certification — a so-called "vaccine passport".
The federal government has signaled already that Canadians who have been fully vaccinated will be allowed to re-enter the country without having to stay in a government authorized quarantine hotel. Confirming the validity of those travellers' vaccination status will require some kind of vaccine passport like the KTDI program. Canada's airports like that idea.
"We're really leaning on vaccinated vs. unvaccinated. That's a place where you can have some differentiation of the travel experience to make it a little smoother, a little bit more pleasant for those who have been vaccinated. But we don't know yet what the government's plans are for that," Gooch said.
Once a traveller's vaccination can be verified, Gooch said, they can be treated differently — perhaps by giving them a single test upon arrival or before they depart, rather than the multiple tests required now.
While the exact changes to international travel are still being worked out, Gooch said the travel experience going forward will be very different from the past.
"Maybe you don't see an individual at all as you walk through the customs hall," he said. "Your verification is done through your facial ID, which is connected to your
Known Traveller Digital Identification, which is connected to your digital health information and your digital travel documentation.
"Ultimately, it could be very good. It could be a much improved experience if we do it right and implement this all down the road."