The smart path to a seamless journey

The smart path to a seamless journey

"For future investments, 77% of airports have set their sights on biometric ID management solutions, including self-boarding gates.” SITA Air Transport IT Insights 2018

Last year, four billion passengers took flight across 58,000 routes. In 20 years’ time, the number of passengers is set to double. But while travel is cheaper and more accessible than ever, rising security challenges mean that passengers must prove their identity at interminable points in the journey.

That’s why the air transport industry has clear plans to embrace biometrics and id management. So says research in SITA’s ‘Air Transport Insights 2018’. As the industry strives to deliver the seamless passenger journey, airlines and airports alike are eager to remove pain points at every step, with security and border checks top of the list. According to the Insights research, 77% of airports have set their sights on biometric ID management solutions.

We will not get the maximum social and economic benefits from (passenger) growth if barriers to travel are not addressed and processes streamlined.

Alexandre de Juniac, Director General and CEO, IATA

The Brisbane experience

Kiosk at Brisbane AirportAt the forefront of global moves to streamline the journey with biometrics and id management is SITA’s Smart Path™ solution, which, after a single biometric check, enables passengers to move through the airport and board the aircraft. SITA’s Smart Path™ Mobile app also allows passengers to create a secure biometric credential on a mobile phone that can then be used at every touch point in the journey.

Brisbane Airport is just one example of Smart Path™ in action. With Air New Zealand, last year the airport launched Australia’s first trial using facial recognition technology at check-in and boarding.

On arrival at the airport, using a check-in kiosk, passengers scan their passport and boarding pass, look into the camera and a single travel token is created in less than 25 seconds. Then, at every step in the journey at the airport – be it at self-bag drop, border control or aircraft boarding – facial scanning removes the need to show a passport or boarding card.

Importantly, it’s facial scanning that’s emerging as the world standard, driven by the inclusion of face biometrics within the e-passports carried by the majority of people these days, and its use in some smartphones as a means of security.  

Groundbreaking trials

In another groundbreaking trial, Qantas passengers using Smart Path™ Mobile at Brisbane Airport are able to upload passport details to their mobile phones. This allows them to check in before arriving at the airport. As these passengers pass through the airport to the lounge or at the boarding gate, facial recognition technology matches their passport data to their face via cameras.

The approach eliminates the need for passengers to show their boarding pass or passport. Those without bags are able to proceed directly to immigration and avoid going to the check-in desks or kiosks in the terminal. Plans are underway to extend to additional passenger touchpoints and airlines at Brisbane airport.

Other examples of using SITA Smart Path™ to smooth the journey are many, including ground-breaking projects and trials by British Airways and Orlando Airport, Hamad International Airport, and an award-winning JetBlue and the US Customs and Border Protection collaboration. (See ‘Aviation steps closer to the walkthrough experience’.)

Towards one-stop identity

So what’s the thinking behind Smart Path and how can it provide the path to the seamless journey? Stephen Challis, Senior Product Manager at SITA, has been exploring not only the thinking underlying SITA Smart Path™ and the results from the Brisbane and other trials, but also the wider implications of whole journey identity management and its impact on the industry.

“When we think about the whole journey, it’s not only what happens when passengers arrive at and leave the airport,” Challis explains. “It starts with booking flights and applying for visas – and then, of course, there are two journeys – the individual passenger and his or her baggage. Sometimes they start together and separate and then come together again. Increasingly, information related to baggage is tied to people's physical identity throughout the journey.

“Another consideration is that while one part of the journey starts and ends at the airport, for the passenger it runs right through to their destination – and perhaps onwards to other destinations before coming home again.”

After a single biometric check using Smart Path™, passengers can move through the airport and board the aircraft. SITA’s Smart Path™ Mobile app also allows passengers to create a secure biometric credential on a mobile phone that can then be used at every touch point in the journey.

Peter Sutcliffe, Portfolio Director – Border Management, SITA

Boarding: The new hard frontier checkpoint?

“We believe that the use of biometrics throughout the journey will accelerate self-service travel beyond where it is at the moment – particularly in reducing the pressures of identity management around boarding. Boarding is fast becoming the new hard frontier checkpoint,” Challis continues.

“Once you’re past security screening and border control, a whole new identity management task begins, particularly in transit lounges – people can swap documents, even take on different identities. But once the boarding pass is scanned and you are at the air bridge – there’s nowhere else to go but onto the aircraft. So enhanced levels of identity management at that point are critical to be really sure of who is boarding and who has departed.”

Check early in the journey

The principle of the single travel token is to collect documentation, information and data as early as possible in the journey. Typically, this is passport information and boarding pass information locked together with the passenger’s biometric to create a single trusted identity token.

For the passenger, it means documents are scanned at the start of the journey, relieving the pressure of more checks. For airlines, it means the chances are improved of getting the passenger to their destination with valid documentation in place, reducing the risk of fines for flying improperly documented passengers.

Critical convenience

An underlying principle of whole journey identity management is that it needs to be on the way not in the way. Creating the single token at the most convenient point for passengers is critical.

Another critical element is that the single token must respect the protocols and established ways of doing things in a common use, CUSS and CUTE environment. For example, at check-in, where the single token is often created, there are two things going on:

  • First, there’s the regular check-in interaction within the airline system
  • Second, there's a biometric interaction, where the check-in information is captured and stored – which SITA calls the ‘identity management engine’

Then, at later stages, individual touchpoints still connect and interact with airline and airport systems as they would do ordinarily, but at each touchpoint biometrics are used to identify the passenger, linking them back to a single token. This makes the passenger’s life much easier, but also allows, for example, government risk assessment checks to be made at all stages of the journey to the aircraft.

Working with existing systems

That connection and interaction with existing systems is an important point to understand, since, unlike some other whole journey identity management systems, SITA Smart Path™ can be deployed using CUTE/CUSS straight away, without any additional technical integration between airlines and airport.

Challis again: “Crucially, SITA Smart Path™ leverages existing technology investment, meaning that it’s easily integrated into current airport infrastructure and airline systems.

“This includes standard common-use, as well as self-service equipment across the industry such as check-in kiosks, bag drop units, gates for secure access, boarding and automated border control. This makes rapid deployment easy and cost-effective. 

“The technology also integrates with government systems and databases, enabling integrated immigration and border checks. Designed to be modular, it allows airports to begin implementing the concept of whole journey identity management into passenger self-service,” Challis adds.

Overwhelming success

Once passengers with a single token reach the boarding gate, they look into the camera, the face is captured and, all being well, the gate opens. This takes under five seconds, and of course the passenger is relieved of the need to find a boarding pass, while the airline is relieved of the need to check boarding pass, face and passport.

The success rate at the boarding gate has been over 98%, with the remainder mostly accounted for by normal operating exceptions that staff are used to handling – such as baggage queries involving connecting passengers. This success rate is an important bonus for airlines, airports and passengers, many of whom are at key stress levels as they move onto the aircraft.

With Smart Path, SITA has successfully integrated the single token with CUSS and bag drop. Having identified a passenger using their biometrics, the boarding pass information is extracted from the token and sent to the bag drop, so the airline CUSS application thinks it's just read a barcode, when in reality the data has been retrieved from the token. Again, passengers don't have to get their boarding pass out, or their passport out and rescan. They can just get on and drop the bag.

Governments and the aviation industry will need to work together to develop standards that address data privacy and security – and crucially – the interoperability of systems … And passengers will need to be assured that the process relating to their data is secure and handled ethically. There’s a lot to consider – but the rewards of success are significant for all parties.

Peter Sutcliffe, Portfolio Director – Border Management, SITA


Biometric border control

JetBlue biometric border control“The next development is to link the single token into regular everyday border control activities,” continues Challis. “If the token can be created, then why not use that for border control? Will we see the redistribution of border control activity right across the journey?”

The key to unlocking radically improved border control is the trust associated with a biometric identity token. Government trust in the token created to facilitate the rest of the journey means that identity quality can be improved and can be earlier. And the associated biometric can be used to cross the border.

Of course, it already happens to an extent at the moment of check-in, when the airline sends passenger information in advance to the government for analysis. But can all processes be linked together, potentially offering significant savings in manpower, equipment – and hassle for the passenger? “The potential is promising, as we saw with JetBlue’s collaboration with the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency and SITA.”

This trialed the world’s first biometric boarding system using just a facial scan to board passengers while also completing the US customs and border exit checks. Passengers traveling on designated international flights from Boston’s Logan International Airport were able to take part without any prior enrollment. SITA provided the technology and connectivity to perform facial capture and integration with the CBP database, as well as integration with JetBlue’s departure control system. (See ‘Aviation steps closer to the walkthrough experience’.)

A token that travels?

The next challenge is to answer the technical and social questions – as well as the scalability – that would lay behind a single token that travels with the passenger to their destination airport. For example, obtaining a single token in Hamburg for a flight to London, and then exporting the token to London so that the passenger can be fast-tracked through UK immigration on their arrival.

The technology exists to make this happen, but there are inevitably some difficult questions to be answered, explains Peter Sutcliffe, SITA Portfolio Director – Border Management.

“The issues are complex. We need to check that people are who they say they are, against security checks such as watch lists or human-supervised risk analytics – whether those checks are managed by national governments, or even by organizations such as Interpol or the United Nations, to provide some degree of consistency.

“Importantly, there’s the need to balance the security and authorization of travelers through the process versus providing a swift and trouble-free experience to the majority of passengers. Achieving that balance is the key to success.”

We must do more with less

Governments want to secure their borders, to mitigate the risks of international terrorism, organized crime and illegal immigration. They want to identify high risk people and cargo to make sure they can intervene if necessary. But of course governments and the air transport industry both want to ensure that all security measures put in place don't impede the travel process.

“We all want to use resources and manpower more efficiently,” continues Sutcliffe. “Airlines want to avoid ineligible travelers or cargo going through the process – otherwise the result can be safety concerns for all, as well as financial penalties and repatriation costs for airlines.”

“But this has to be done in an environment in which traveler numbers are increasing and governments want to use more automation to do more with fewer people on the ground. At the same time, passengers expect an improved experience.

“Passengers expect the use of technology to support their travel process. They expect us to harness what they see every day in the outside world, but with their data secured. Balancing the government's needs, the expectations of travelers and the expectations and needs of the air transport community is tough.”

He adds: “Governments use many types of data to conduct border management. If we can help governments pick travelers of interest out of the vast majority of travelers that are not of concern, with better and earlier insight, we can help them do a better job.

“Ultimately, that will protect the passenger, the airport, and the airline. And that's what we want to do. We want to protect everybody involved in the process. However, there’s growing demand from governments for more data.

 “Governments recognize, for example, that analyzing a booking one year in advance is not much use, while analyzing a manifest at the time the flight closes may be too late for them to do much with. However, building an identity-assured, continually improving picture of a passenger journey over time provides the best opportunity to balance security with facilitation,” says Sutcliffe.

The big question

Data is provided to a government on a best endeavors basis, and it may not necessarily be that useful. Passenger-entered information can be error-strewn. At the same time, not every airport has a document scanner on a desk. Not every airport has a biometric checkpoint at boarding.

There are many instances of people in remote ports or elsewhere hand-keying travel document information and there are many issues with that. Maintaining quality and providing good quality data to governments is important, but so is doing this in an ecosystem that is evolving.

Sutcliffe again: “So the questions are: can the introduction of a single token – which is exportable from the departure point to the destination point – provide sufficient assurance to satisfy government parties of the validity of the traveler’s identity and their desirability? And can this support the air transport industry on a path to better quality identity data for facilitating passenger processes at the point of departure, upon arrival and future onward travel?

“Governments and the aviation industry will need to continue to collaborate to develop standards that address data privacy and security – and crucially – the interoperability of systems. They will also have to do a better job of adhering to those standards.

“And passengers will need to be assured that the process relating to their data is secure and handled ethically. There’s a lot to consider – but the rewards of success are significant for all parties,” concludes Sutcliffe.

Data quality counts

It has to be said that while the technology is improving every day, the various stakeholders involved in delivering single token travel should expect to still require manual passenger processing methods to accommodate those passengers unable to use biometrics.

Even where an e-passport is available, the data may not be of sufficient quality.  For face data this can be due to a number of factors, such as an incorrect pose. 

Perhaps most significantly, the quality of passports and of the data and the chip within the passport is sometimes an issue.  The passport might be old, or incorrectly encoded by governments.

IATA's push for open borders

SITA’s ground-breaking work in biometrics fits neatly with IATA’s call for a comprehensive Open Borders Strategy to help governments work with industry to maintain the integrity of national borders, while removing inefficiencies that prevent the industry from satisfying travel demand.

The strategy has four main components:

  • Reviewing visa requirements and removing unnecessary travel restrictions by unlocking the potential from shared information in a trusted framework
  • Including travel facilitation as part of bilateral and regional trade negotiations (IATA believes that removing restrictions on the free movement of travelers should receive as much priority as other barriers to liberalized trade in goods and services.) 
  • Linking registered-traveler programs (Where these programs are already linked (Canada-US for example) the efficiencies grow.)
  •  Using Application Programming Interface (API) data more effectively and efficiently

Speaking at the 2018 IATA AGM, IATA Director General and CEO Alexandre de Juniac stressed that: “We will not get the maximum social and economic benefits from (passenger) growth if barriers to travel are not addressed and processes streamlined.”