Seamless travel is coming sooner than you think

Producing travel documentation could soon be a thing of the past in many places as facial recognition technology to allow people to board planes and cross borders is being widely tested.

But the increasing use of technology to quicken journeys isn’t just being done to make life easier for customers. It’s becoming a necessity.

Speaking at the WTTC Global Summit last month, Paul Griffiths, CEO Dubai Airports made this clear. He said:

“We have no choice. We have to do this otherwise the whole airport infrastructure will grind to a halt.”

Whilst passenger numbers will grow exponentially, doubling from 10 million a day now to 21 million by 2030 according to IATA’s SVP of Member and External Relations Paul Steele, the lack of space for new airports and runways and the huge cost involved with building them means we need a different solution.

During a busy afternoon session discussing the issues and opportunities, experts from airlines, tech companies, airports, travel providers and Government revealed a host of fascinating details at the Global Summit. For now there are a number different stakeholders working on a variety of projects. It will be interesting to see how things finally turn out. What seems certain is that it will happen quickly, the industry as a whole knows it has to act now.

Biometric technology is being increasingly adopted

The financial services industry offers useful learnings and technologies that are being adopted by airlines. Diana Robino, SVP, Mastercard explained how ‘selfie pay’ is already working — someone can make payment simply by looking into a camera. It’s trialling a biometric identification tool using an app on a smart phone with Air France and Citibank. In the USA, up to 10 airports now use facial recognition technology to allow passengers to board planes without presenting a passport using the Biometric Air Exit programme. British Airways is just one of a number of airlines trialing facial recognition in numerous locations to allow people to board planes too.

Taking it beyond biometrics

Currently there’s a range of approaches being taken to use technology at different points in a customer’s journey from home to destination. The ultimate goal is one concept that will encompass all of it. The Known Traveler Digital Identity Concept being driven by the World Economic Forum attempts to map this out in detail as John Moavenzadeh from WEF explained. The principle involves the traveller possessing an encrypted file of information which contains personal identifiers like facial images, fingerprints, passport, driving licence, bank details and more. The traveller chooses which elements to share with the various authorities that need to identify them: airlines, border control, hotels and more. At the moment an individual’s fingerprint or image of their face has to be stored locally on a database which creates issues with data security and ownership. Blockchain and cryptographic technology can solve this problem. People’s data will be secure and distributed on the cloud, meaning that no one else has control of it. (This is sometimes called Distributed Ledger Technology.) The Known Traveler Digital Identity Concept is already being trialled in Canada and the Netherlands.

People are happy to share their data

One of the more surprising statistics which was shared by Paul Steele from IATA was that over 70% of travellers would be happy to share their personal data with authorities if it meant seamless travel experiences. This clearly shows that people find the current processes which often involve queuing multiple times to board a plane or enter a country very frustrating. It also suggests that travellers would happily adopt concepts like Known Traveler Digital Identity. And with the overlay of cryptography and Blockchain-based Distributed Ledger Technology, the big stumbling blocks around data security and privacy will soon become a thing of the past anyway.

What’s holding things up?

The technology is there and it’s being tested in many ways in live environments. It just remains for someone to join it all up and agree some common standards and there’s clearly a will to do this. However there remains the issue of what information authorities need to be able make a confident decision that the person wanting to gain access to their jurisdiction is who they say they are and does not pose a threat. As Dr Fang Liu, Secretary General, International Civil Aviation Organization explained, agreed standards for these types of security checks already exist at international level. Unfortunately they are not being applied consistently from one country to the next. She estimates that only 30% of states have implemented them properly. As is often the case, bureaucracy is having trouble keeping up with the pace of technological change.

Further reading: The Known Traveler Identity Concept

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