As we move deeper into the digital age, the more our personal lives and the transactions we undertake will be managed and verified digitally, either on our mobile devices or online.
For the air transport industry this shift presents an opportunity to dramatically improve and speed up the way passengers’ identities are validated, with benefits both for the passenger and governments seeking to secure their borders.
As part of ongoing research into travel identity of the future, SITA is exploring single token travel which will allow travelers to pass through borders with a single, digitally verified identity.
“Single token travel will make moving through airports less onerous while dramatically improving security. This is the industry’s Uber moment. It’s the chance to completely change the way we travel,” says Renaud Irminger, Director of SITA Lab.
Using blockchain technology, SITA’s innovative research imagines passengers creating a verifiable ‘token’ on their mobile phone which contains biometric and other personal data.
In this vision of future travel, no matter where in the world you go any authority can simply scan your face and scan your device to verify you are an authorized traveler.
This can be done without all these agencies ever controlling or storing your biometric details or personal information.
“Blockchain technology offers us the potential to provide a new way of using biometrics. It could enable biometrics to be used across borders, and at all airports, without the passenger’s details being stored by the various authorities,” says Irminger.
In terms of security, blockchain technology allows ‘privacy by design’ so that passenger data can be secure, encrypted, tamper-proof and unusable for any other purpose. At the same time, it eliminates the need for a single authority to own, process or store the data.
The crypto-led computer science of blockchain provides a network of trust, where the source and history of the data is verifiable by everyone.
“This is a whole new way of working. Ultimately the blockchain is simply a database where transactions are recorded and confirmed anonymously.
“Whether it is used for currency or travel it is simply a record of events that is shared between multiple parties but most importantly once information is entered, it cannot be changed, and privacy and security are by design,” says Irminger.
However, this opportunity is not without its challenges. “As an industry we agree that existing systems and processes are unlikely to keep up with the pace of changes in air transport,” says Bob Davidson, Head of Aviation Facilitation at IATA.
“The challenge is designing, agreeing and adopting a new common standard that all industry parties agree to.”
Streamlining border management is a key element of IATA’s Simplifying the Business initiative and SITA, which is a strong supporter of the program, continues to work with the industry to build support around single token travel as the answer to smarter border management.
“SITA’s research into the travel identity of the future is part of our ongoing investment in research for the benefit of the entire air transport community and is one of the five community innovation programs that SITA launched this year,” says Jim Peters, Chief Technology Officer at SITA.
“The aim is to drive innovation such as single token travel as well build support around a common solution. It will take time but agreement on a single solution would be a huge benefit to the entire industry.”
As part of this drive, SITA has partnered with blockchain start-up ShoCard on an early demo of these concepts as well as develop a discussion paper on the use of blockchain technology, laying out the benefits of single token travel.
While Davidson acknowledges the potential of single token travel – “a cloud-based record is increasingly food for thought in the industry” – he believes the transition to this technology will be more gradual.
“While there’s a lively debate around whether e-passports or single travel token is the way forward, e-passports are available now and therefore the best short-term solution.”
SITA is already leading the way forward with an initial step towards single token travel using e-passports through the development of Smart Path™.
This technology allows passengers to move through the airport and board the aircraft simply by presenting themselves for a biometric check. Once verified there’s no need for the passenger to present a boarding pass, a passport or travel documents again.
“More than 100 airports around the world have some sort of automated border control,” says Sean Farrell, Portfolio Director Government and Security Solutions at SITA.
“And the key to this really, is the expansion of e-passports with more than 50% of passengers already using these passports which contain their biometric.
“When you combine this ability to check a passenger’s identity with biometrics, with the systems governments are using to do risk assessment of travelers based on airline-provided data, you create a strong opportunity.
“And that opportunity is to automate the border crossing for passengers you know are low risk and whose identity you can check by comparing their live biometric to the one contained in their e-passport.”
With SITA Smart Path, the passenger’s biometric details are captured through a facial scan at the first touch point in the journey. The record is checked against the passenger’s travel documents, typically the e-passport, and a secure single token is created.
Then, at each step of the journey – from check-in, to aircraft boarding or border control – passengers gain access simply with a facial scan and without having to show their passport or boarding pass.
SITA Smart Path puts the fast, secure and seamless walkthrough experience of mobile single token travel within reach of passengers today. And unlike other offerings, SITA’s can be easily integrated into existing airport infrastructure and airline systems.
This includes standard common-use, self-service equipment already in use across the industry such as check-in kiosks, bag drop units, gates for secure access, boarding and automated border control, making rapid deployment easy and cost-effective.
Smart Path also integrates with government systems and databases, allowing integrated immigration and border checks.
Smart Path has already been trialed at a major airport in the Middle East with further proofs of concept planned for similar-sized airports in the region.
For SITA Lab's Irminger, Smart Path is an important step on the path toward ultimate progression to a mobile single travel token.
“We have a clear plan of action and over the coming months we will continue to trial single token travel technology with various partners while engaging the industry around developing a common standard that meets the requirements of most players.
“We will not get to a mobile single token travel in one leap but with steady steps such as Smart Path the ultimate goal of one token for all airports, borders and airlines is within our grasp,” says Irminger.
Sean Farrell, Head of Portfolio Management, Government Solutions, SITA discusses the use of e-Passports containing biometric information and combining it with government data to automate the border control process through identity management.