Queue-busting at the border

Border checkpoints are changing: time spent in queues is being cut radically and passengers are noting the difference.

You’re a major hub airport operator. You’ve got a couple of 747s arriving within minutes of each other: 800 passengers eager to get their bags, get to important meetings or start their holidays.

So what happens? They get stuck at border control. They have to wait too long while their identity is checked and the country’s border police are satisfied there are no terrorists, drug traffickers, known criminals, or illegal immigrants.

Passengers don’t like it. The hard-pressed border police don’t like it, and nor do airport authorities and airlines, not to mention the local tourist boards who are eager to present a picture of a welcoming city or region. No one likes it, but it’s become unavoidable – the flip side of the benefits of globalization.

Not easy

Over the past 10 years, many of those involved in the processing of passengers through border control have been working to resolve the problem. And it’s not easy. The obvious route is some kind of self-service automation.

But replacing trained border officers with machines requires strong confidence in the technology as well as a preparedness to change culture. It requires an ability to link into a range of state databases to verify details in a way that’s itself secure, but also fast and accurate.

Automated border control must rely on consistently accurate verification of identity. Facial, iris pattern and fingerprints are unique to each individual, but they must be verifiable quickly and effectively. Finally, all of this must be achievable in a way that is economically acceptable and that ends up radically speeding up the process.

The good news is that the various strands have been brought together successfully. Biometrics are extensively used for trusted traveler programs – with members volunteering their biometric data in return for priority processing.

Border agencies can assess and flag persons of interest too, by comparing advance passenger information (API) with watch lists. Some countries want to promote a combined passport and customs check in the country of departure – and SITA has launched iBorders TravelAuthorization to facilitate that process.

Smart progress

That still does not dispense with the problem of queues and human interaction, but a great deal more is happening. In 2009, Bahrain became one of the first governments to allow its citizens to enter and leave the country using automated, biometric immigration procedures.

IATA is progressing with its Smart Security program, targeted at reducing the time and hassle of passing through security checkpoints, which was recently re-launched in partnership with the Airports Council International (ACI).

SITA has launched its own self-service Automated Border Control gates and kiosks for travelers holding biometric travel documents.

iBorders Border Automation can process up to seven passengers a minute, massively reduce waiting time and requiring half the amount of space to process the same number of passengers as a traditional immigration lane.

Automated passport control

But some locations have more complex immigration procedures. This is particularly the case in the US, where in the worst scenarios it can take more than two hours for passengers to progress through queues to the point of speaking to an immigration officer.

This issue has been successfully addressed in recent months with the introduction of the Automated Passport Control (APC) program.

This allows passengers to provide their travel documents, biometric data and customs declaration using a self-service kiosk prior to speaking to a US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer at an immigration counter. There are four phases of the program:

  • Phase 1 (from May 2013): US citizens only
  • Phase 2 (from November 2013): now including Canadian, as well as US, citizens
  • Phase 3 (from January 2014): now including visitors from countries that are part of the  US Government’s Visa Waiver Program
  • Phase 4 (date to be confirmed): any traveler of any nationality.

“SITA has been at the forefront of this development, through pioneering systems installed at Miami International and Orlando International Airports,” says SITA’s Dan Ebbinghaus, Vice President, Government and Security Solutions.

Faster, easier

A total of 36 self-service Phase 2 APC kiosks were installed at Miami in time for the peak period of Thanksgiving in late 2013, when more than 900,000 passengers pass through the airport.

At the time, Maurice Jenkins, Director of Information Systems and Telecommunications said: “Our aim is always to provide excellent service to our passengers. SITA’s APC kiosks are reducing wait times and making arrival in Miami faster and easier for US and Canadian passport holders arriving on international flights”.

Land, touch & go

Early in 2014, a greater step change in the use of self-service kiosks was achieved at Orlando International Airport, when it became the first in the US to offer Phase 3 – giving international travelers from the now 38 visa waiver countries the opportunity to “land, touch and go” using SITA’s APC kiosks.

Fitted with SITA’s iBorders solution in partnership with Vision-Box, the 10 kiosks automatically verify and validate the passenger’s travel documents, check flight information, capture an ICAO-compliant face image and up to 10 fingerprints, as well as obtaining the customs declaration data required by CBP. This can be completed in 90 seconds or less, compared to 3-4 minutes previously.  

At the end of the self-service process, travelers receive a receipt to be presented to the CBP officer for final clearance, at a fast-track dedicated lane.

The kiosks can only be used by travelers who have previously entered the US and whose fingerprints are on file with the CBP.

Phil Brown, Executive Director of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, said: “These kiosks are the first to go live for international travelers arriving in the USA and are a great addition to Orlando International Airport. We have a growing number of wide-body aircraft arriving within 90 minutes of each other every afternoon and 90 percent of travelers are arriving from visa waiver countries.

“Since we installed these new kiosks we have seen a dramatic increase in the total number of travelers processed per minute.”

Billion dollar smiles

The next phase of the APC program, Phase 4, is the most challenging, validating any traveler from any country. There is no doubting the economic and tourist benefits that would accrue by making entry into the US easier and faster. But biometric and biographical challenges are multiplied.

The requirements for Phase 4 are challenging and both airports and airlines are showing keen interest in being first to implement.

SITA’s APC kiosks are ready to adhere to the performance targets and standards that will be required. They are already capable of advance facial recognition allied with enhanced document validation and authentication.

And the experience will be keenly watched by immigration authorities worldwide: they all face the same problem of providing a warm welcome to visitors and allowing them to get from aircraft to curb swiftly and easily.

For the moment, Orlando and Miami airports are enjoying the sight of arriving passengers smiling with delight at the speed and ease of use provided by APC kiosks. Those smiles are worth billions of dollars a year to the local economies.

Find out more

About biometrics and automated border control: www.sita.aero/ABC

About APC kiosks

SITA’s Automated Passport Control (APC) kiosks are designed to speed up processing at the US Immigration Primary Line.


They enable travelers to complete their Customs Declaration Form on touch-screens, have their passports read and fingerprints and facial images captured.


The kiosks process travelers in three simple steps:


  1. Answering a set of regulatory questions at the touch-screen
  2. Passport reading and verification
  3. Identity verification


At the end of the self-service process, travelers get a receipt to be presented to a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer for final clearance, in a fast-track dedicated lane.


The industry's border solution

SITA’s border solutions have been developed in close cooperation with border agency partners on all continents, as well as airlines, airports and industry groups. This has enabled a profound understanding of the expectations, ambitions and concerns of all those involved in the handling of border security.


iBorders® provides governments with a complete set of capabilities to transform border security. It improves the experience for travelers and secures borders with information, intelligence, optimized interactions and comprehensive insight into every aspect of border operations, through a four-layered model of capabilities:


    • iBorders Information provides comprehensive traveler information from airlines and other carriers, as well as integration with external information sources, such as government databases, to enhance controls at the border and speed up the processing of people and goods.


    • iBorders Intelligence transforms traveler information into actionable intelligence using powerful risk assessment tools combined with travel document and identity verification, to identify high-risk travelers and persons of interest.


    • iBorders Interaction offers pre-clearance of travelers before they travel, as well as secure risk-assessed self-service border clearance for travelers holding biometric travel documents, freeing up border management resources while improving security.


  • iBorders Insight provides comprehensive statistics and metrics on border performance, combined with predictive tools that enable efficient allocation of available resources and management of border operations.
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