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Canada's Borders And Airports Will Be Very Different When International Travel Resumes.
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Canada's Borders And Airports Will Be Very Different When International Travel Resumes.

The COVID-19 pandemic will change the way people travel internationally, just as the 9/11 attacks did 20 years ago, with hundreds of millions of dollars in new government spending planned for border security and airport public health measures.

The federal government announced $82.5 million in funding for COVID-19 testing infrastructure at Canadian airports in the most recent federal budget, as well as another $6.7 million for sanitization equipment for the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority.

In addition, Ottawa has set aside $656.1 million over the next five years to modernize Canada's border security.

According to Daniel Gooch, president of the Canadian Airports Council, the country's flight hubs still don't know what to expect from them.

"We've been hoping for quite some time to have meaningful discussions with government about how to do that," Gooch told CBC News. "Unfortunately, at this point we have no insight into what the different phases of restoration of air travel will look like."

According to Gooch, the four Canadian airports that are still accepting international flights are operating at about 5% of their pre-COVID levels — but they are at capacity with the current COVID-19 public health measures in place.

"Part of the problem is the insistence on the two-metre physical distance," he explained. "When you make that requirement, you very quickly hit capacity, so we can't grow the numbers and keep everything the way it is right now; it's not physically possible."

Non-essential international travel is not yet permitted in Canada, though Canadians returning home and visitors with exemptions, such as essential workers, are permitted to enter the country if they follow certain protocols.

On February 22, the federal government implemented new quarantine measures at airports, requiring all air travelers returning from non-essential trips abroad to undergo polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests 72 hours before flying.

The result of that test must be provided to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) upon arrival, and travelers must then take a second test and remain isolated in federally mandated facilities for up to 72 hours while the results are awaited.

"Ultimately, it could be very good; it could be a much better experience if we do it right and implement everything down the road." - Daniel Gooch

While funding for airport testing infrastructure is welcome, Gooch believes that testing cannot continue in airports once pre-COVID levels of air travel resume.

He stated that providing take-home tests to passengers or directing arrivals to off-site testing centers near the airport would free up terminal space and allow more passengers to be processed.

"We were pleased to see in the federal budget significant funding for border modernization, which will include things like touchless technology and less contact in terms of interactions with border services," he said.

The "Known Traveller Digital Identity" project, or KTDI, is at the heart of the federal government's push toward touchless travel. It is a collaboration between the World Economic Forum and the Netherlands.

The project began in 2018 with the publication of a white paper, which was viewed as a way to modernize air travel by moving passengers through airports more quickly, stating that a new, touchless system was required because the number of international air arrivals was expected to increase by 50% between 2016 and 2030.

With international travel nearly at a halt, the technology is seen as a means of facilitating a return to pre-COVID levels of air traffic.

Travel without touching

According to 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. Travelers with KTDI documentation would still have to deal with 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's an international border," said a senior CBSA official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"We're not talking about replacing your passport, but we're talking about reducing the number of times you have to take out that document, or your boarding pass, to prove who you are and where you need to be."

According to the official, the KTDI program is still in its early stages, with technological issues still being worked out, and that privacy safeguards would need to be in place before such a system could be launched.

"It's not like the Government of Canada keeps that information in a centralized location, or airlines keep it in a centralized location, or border agencies keep it in a centralized location," the official explained, adding that "it's the traveller who keeps their own information."

Vaccinated travelers vs. unvaccinated travelers

According to a CBSA spokesperson, the $656.1 million federal investment in border security modernization will fund other "digital self-service tools" that will "reduce touchpoints" and create more "automated interactions" at Canadian airports over the next five years.

More information on those measures will be made public "in the coming weeks," according to the CBSA.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is in the United Kingdom this weekend for the G7 summit, where leaders are expected to discuss international vaccination certification, also known as a "vaccine passport."

The federal government has already indicated that Canadians who have been fully vaccinated will be allowed to re-enter the country without having to stay in a government-approved quarantine hotel; however, confirming the validity of those travellers' vaccination status will require some kind of vaccine passport, similar to the KTDI program, which Canadian airports like.
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