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Not so long ago biometric technology was something we saw in science fiction and spy movies. Now it’s mainstream. Let’s think about that. Many people today, including myself, open their mobile devices with a touch of their finger. And it’s not just to make a call. This identity check and authentication allows us to access our bank accounts and make payments.

There’s no doubt we’re steadily becoming a post-digital society in which most of the global population will have grown up with digital technology. Gen Y, Z and now A rely on technology and they’re willing to use more mobile services while staying connected throughout their journey.

A few weeks back, at the SITA Innovation Forum, I hosted a Passenger Experience Workshop. We brought together industry leaders to share their experiences and collectively explore the challenges and opportunities of passenger engagement in our industry’s digital transformation.

What stood out for me was that the majority of these airline and airport IT leaders acknowledged that the expectations of these post-digital passengers will impact IT developments and solutions. Biometric travel tokens are a clear example of that impact; according to our research, 54% of IT decision makers see these tokens as delivering some of the greatest benefits for passengers.

Your face will open the doors to a walkthrough airport experience

Today, I’m seeing multiple biometric pilots and trials being rolled out – from the United States, through Europe, the Middle East and Asia. I’m personally involved in several of these programs, including some with the largest airports in the World, who are extending biometric technologies across the board.

They include a trial at Orlando International Airport with British Airways, enabling biometric boarding at the gate, on flights from Orlando to London Gatwick. The trial resulted in the boarding of international flights for almost 240 passengers in around 15 minutes. Other airport trials have taken place at Brisbane Airport with Air New Zealand, Hamad International (Qatar) with Qatar Airways, and Boston (US) with JetBlue, with several more US, Asian and European airports coming on stream.

Industry studies and reports show that passengers are willing to use biometrics, instead of a passport or boarding pass, for identification throughout the journey. Even so, speed of uptake will vary by region. Take Europe, for example, where we expect it may take a bit longer for European regulators to define a framework to protect the privacy of passengers when biometrics are used. However, we’ve seen pilot projects where this is being addressed. During a biometric boarding pilot at Ljubljana Airport, to ensure GDPR compliance, systems delete data soon after passengers board the plane and the data is no longer required.

The future of biometric ID management

So, we know that today’s biometric technology already works well. But today’s secure travel token, which comprises passport information, biometric data and itinerary, is usually only valid for one airport and one trip.

The real game-changer will come with the advent of the persistent travel token. With these tokens, passengers will only need to register their biometric data once, linking their token to their journey whenever they travel. Persistent travel tokens will provide an air travel experience that will be more frictionless and more personal. Within five years, passengers will be able to go through the airport using their facial biometric as the primary validation at different customer touchpoints and use the same persistent token as they travel from airport to airport, including across borders.

On a side note, facial biometric technology has improved thanks to the use of artificial intelligence and machine-based learning for face-matching rather than more traditional algorithms. Other key technologies, such as mobile self-service, 5G networking, and airports moving towards cloud-based infrastructure (rather than locally-managed) will also support a transformational improvement in the passenger experience that we will see adopted widely in the next five years.

Longer term, look out for digital passports

Longer term, there are initiatives to enable travelers to store their identity credentials on their smartphones. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is working on a digital travel credential, derived from the ePassport, that will be issued by your government and which can be stored in a secure wallet on your phone.

Future travelers will be able to securely share their credentials with governments, airports and airlines from their phone and under their control, ensuring the privacy of their personal data. SITA is working with the Sovrin Foundation, an international non-profit organization, which is looking at using blockchain technology to do this. The Sovrin initiative goes beyond air travel to encompass all aspects of our digital online lives, but it promises a solution that could be the basis of how we travel in the future.

Solving the challenge of how we share identity data is also at the core of the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) OneID program. It recognizes the importance of a collaborative identity management solution that spans all process steps and stakeholders, and which provides a trust framework for sharing identity data among the different stakeholders.

As I look at these initiatives, it’s evident that we as an industry are working with a common goal in mind. I am optimistic that within a few years we’ll see technology solutions available to create the walkthrough travel experience, and that within 10-15 years we’ll witness the widespread adoption of those solutions.

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