Data privacy was among the many stresses and strains on the airline ecosystem highlighted by the pandemic.

Health information became the norm, but the rules varied from country to country. Some insisted that airlines hold on to the information, others were adamant that the health data had to be deleted or wouldn’t allow it to be transmitted internationally.

The painful workaround and compliance costs were all too familiar to airlines. The increasing use of data and emerging privacy laws have created a patchwork of bewildering complexity.

“There are about 137 countries with some form of privacy legislation,” says Leslie MacIntosh, IATA’s Director Legal Services. “These laws are often inconsistent with each other, vague, or have extraterritorial implications.”

The problem is likely to worsen as new technologies requiring personal information are implemented to enhance border management, passenger facilitation, and security tasks. If unaddressed, this issue of inconsistency in data protection laws has the potential to disrupt the recovery of international connectivity and dampen aviation demand.

It is equally confusing for travelers. Consider a passenger buying a ticket through a global distribution system to fly from the United States to Australia via Europe and Asia. If there is a data breach, where should a complaint be made?


ICAO Resolution

The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is perhaps the most influential of privacy regulations and the most far-reaching, affecting EU citizens throughout the world. But though it serves as a guide for many countries, it is now being developed in different directions. Brazil, Canada, and China are just a few of the countries that either have enacted or plan to enact new privacy laws.

Unfortunately, the effect of these privacy laws on a fast-moving, data-heavy global industry such as aviation is, at best, an afterthought. Even though aviation is governed by international treaty—the Chicago Convention—the laws are being designed for domestic application.

This runs counter to an ICAO resolution. ICAO Assembly Resolution A40-9, Appendix A, states that countries should “avoid adopting unilateral measures that may affect the orderly and harmonious development of international air transport and to ensure that domestic policies and legislation are not applied to international air transport without taking account of its special characteristics.”


Guidelines for data laws

MacIntosh accepts that there are no easy wins. “An international treaty on privacy laws is unrealistic but we need regulators to think about aviation when they are constructing their privacy regulation,” she says. “And, actually, they should be doing that anyway. That has been made clear at ICAO.”

The industry is not seeking exemption from privacy laws but is calling for an understanding of its operational needs and a similar framework for data privacy that exists for safety and other critical industry-wide concerns.

After all, passengers must provide personal information to an airline to travel internationally, and their data must move with them as an inherent and expected aspect of the journey. There are airline-to-airline, airline-to-provider, and airline to-government data exchanges. If any part of this is disrupted by cumbersome legislation, the passenger will suffer inconvenience, delays, or even denial of travel.

To facilitate discussion, IATA submitted a working paper to the 41st ICAO Triennial Assembly suggesting an expert group is convened to formulate best practice guidelines in this critical area. China also lodged a working paper that argues along the same lines. The group could include civil aviation regulators, legal experts, privacy and data protection specialists, and airline professionals.

“Governments could then refer to this guidance material when developing, updating, or benchmarking data protection legislation,” says MacIntosh. “This would enable better data protection regulations to be developed that could achieve their objectives without disrupting international civil aviation and without increasing airline costs.”


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