Airlines are battling a scourge of passengers traveling with falsified Covid-19 health certificates.
The documents are often the Covid-19 test results required by many countries on arrival. The International Air Transport Association industry body says it has tracked fake certificates in multiple countries, from France to Brazil, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Border control authorities and police forces have also reported arrests of people selling documents in the U.K., Spain, Indonesia and Zimbabwe, among others.
The problem is hitting international flights more than domestic ones, which typically don’t require certification at the moment. Airlines that are more dependent on cross-border travel, particularly those operating in Europe, are growing increasingly alarmed as they look to the summer, when they still hope demand will start to return.
The proliferation of fake health certificates is exposing a logistical blind spot, as airlines rush to navigate post-pandemic travel standards and retool their systems to ease compliance—and spur demand. Airlines say their staff aren’t equipped to handle and police all the new health certifications needed and worry the problem will be exacerbated when some countries also start to ask for vaccination certificates.
At Brussels Airlines, staff have shared fake certificates that they have come across—including one from an incident last week—to stay abreast of the techniques fraudsters are using.
“They take out the names of the passengers and then show how they tried to make it look like the real document and the techniques used,” a spokeswoman for the airline said.
Airlines are pushing for digital health passes that can store vaccine certificates and the results of Covid-19 and antibody tests. The industry says this will make it easier to track the veracity of documents and avoid the need to physically check them at airports. But even this sort of system “will not stop people still trying to bring fraudulent certificates,” said Akbar Al Baker, chief executive of Qatar Airways Ltd.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 120 countries are using testing to control entry. The CDC requires flights landing in the U.S. from overseas to verify passengers’ health documents, which must show either a negative test result or evidence of recovery from the virus.
Many governments have shifted the burden of checking certificates to airlines, in much the same way carriers are required to check for proper travel visas before allowing passengers to fly.
Deutsche Lufthansa AG has been fined up to 25,000 euros, or about $29,800, by Germany for allowing passengers with false or incorrect documents to board, according to people familiar with the penalties. In total, Germany registered 3,838 “unlawful transportations” between Jan. 24, when it started tracking, and April 8, according to German police.
Lufthansa has compiled a list of testing centers it considers valid in countries where it operates, said Jörg Waber, a spokesman for the airline. The German interior ministry, which oversees the federal police, said officers were “aware of the phenomenon of falsified coronavirus test results,” and were “taking this into account when verifying documents.”
Meanwhile, Qatar Airways is requiring passengers’ certificates to be sent directly from the testing clinic. Any traveler found to be carrying fraudulent documents is blacklisted, Mr. Al Baker, the airline’s CEO, said.
Qatar Airways has identified clinics in some countries from which it is willing to accept certification. “We are mitigating the problem of fraudulent certificates,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean that we have never carried any fraudulent certificate passengers on the airplane.”
At London Heathrow Airport, the additional checks by border control have led to lines of more than six hours for arriving passengers. That is with just 541,000 passengers passing through the airport in March, down 91.7% from the comparable period in 2019.
Airlines are resisting calls to take on the responsibility of verifying the certificates at check in, or elsewhere in the airport.
“We cannot have either our crews or the people at Heathrow or other airports verifying the authenticity of all these documents,” Virgin Atlantic Airways Chief Executive Shai Weiss said. “That will take too much time, and we’ve seen queues and processing times moving up by two to three times at the airport.”