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A digital cross-border tomorrow, today

Jeremy Springall, Global Head of Borders Division at SITA, says adopting digital identities across the entire travel process holds exciting advantages for border agencies and the air transport industry. Passenger biometrics, in particular, will mean that crossing borders becomes faster, more convenient and increasingly secure.

What do you find exciting about your role at SITA? 

SITA AT BORDERS focuses on border security and facilitation. We are helping create a future where people can travel quickly and safely worldwide, using digital identities based on biometrics, artificial intelligence (AI), data and automation. This means that in the not-too-distant future, passengers won’t even need physical travel documents to move seamlessly by land, air or sea.

For me, the digital transformation of the border management industry is the most exciting aspect of my work. SITA plays an important role in bringing the vision of a highly effective and agile future border to life.

What industry challenges is SITA AT BORDERS addressing currently?

Ongoing global disruptions, from geo-political instabilities to rising levels of international terrorism and crime, the impact of climate change on operations, as well as economic downturns and health crises like COVID-19, highlight the ever-shifting landscape our clients must navigate. Amidst these challenges, governments are striving to improve border security, promote travel and trade, and enhance their country’s national prosperity by creating a safe and seamless travel experience that attracts tourists.

Since border agencies operate with limited space, tight budgets and reduced resources, they need help delivering the level of service and security required of this key frontline service. Fortunately, SITA AT BORDERS’ automation and digital solutions can help improve operational efficiencies across the border. Governments benefit from pre-clearance and risk assessment capabilities, allowing them to clear passengers before departure, facilitating faster approvals and risk assessment. Additionally, digital identities reduce barriers to travel and tourism, bringing economic benefits.

SITA aims to create a process as contactless as possible using solutions such as biometric technology and AI to ensure passengers can move through the airport and border as smoothly as possible without encountering long queues and delays. With a border management footprint in over 70 countries and all G20 nations, SITA already caters to over 80% of the world’s travelers. This has enabled us to develop a trusted network of stakeholders interested in advancing digital identities, including the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the global aviation standards body, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

Can you share examples of SITA AT BORDERS in action?

There are a number of exciting examples already in use around the world, from the recent renewal of major contracts with Australia, a SITA customer for 27 years that recently launched our new mobile center of excellence and biometrics offering, to the pioneering Digital Travel work we recently undertook with the Government of Aruba. The Caribbean island has taken the innovative move of piloting the pre-clearance of travelers using a mobile app and secure, decentralized, blockchain-based SITA Trust Network to authenticate traveler credentials. This dramatically simplifies the entry process into Aruba, creating a fast-tracked border experience. Using the verified digital identity on their mobile devices, travelers can also access many of Aruba’s attractions, from restaurants and shops to clubs.

Can you give a specific example of how your solutions are bringing your future vision to life?

A great example is SITA AT BORDERS’s development of a secure, verified Digital Travel Credentials (DTC) identity. In simple terms, a DTC is a digital version of a person’s passport, which is typically held on the traveler’s mobile phone. Soon, travelers possessing a DTC will be able to perform a myriad of important transactions using digital processes – from requesting a visa, booking a flight, checking in, arranging accommodation, and, ultimately, crossing borders.

For instance, SITA’s work with the Government of Aruba is now expanding to include DTCs. This means that airport authorities, airlines, and the Government of Aruba can give travelers the ability to securely share their identity (biometric and biographic information) to automate their journey.

We’ve made significant progress, but there are still challenges to overcome in rolling out end-to-end digital travel, including building trust in the technologies to facilitate widespread adoption. While most passengers are open to using digital identities to simplify and enhance their travel experience, transparency around data privacy is critical and sensitive personal information must be ethically handled, especially since personal information might need to be shared between airports, airlines and other travel stakeholders. This is why a global industry standard like the ICAO 9309 for DTCs is so important.

How are passengers responding to using digital identities and biometrics for travel?

Passengers are welcoming digital identities and biometric technologies in their travel experiences. SITA’s 2023 Passenger IT Insights survey showed that more than 7 out of 10 travelers polled are comfortable using biometrics throughout their journey and willing to adopt these. IATA’s recent Global Passenger Survey echoes SITA’s findings, noting that 87% of travelers are willing to share their information to speed up the travel process.

Convenience, security and a hassle-free experience are the significant advantages for passengers. Ultimately, a passenger’s journey starts at home, even before they have checked into their flight. This makes it extremely appealing to today’s travelers to share their trusted DTC to obtain travel authorization or to provide governments with the information needed to streamline the border experience through pre-clearance – which means a passenger only needs a facial biometric verification for cross-border entry.

What are the advantages for airports and airlines?

These digitally ‘read-to-fly’ passengers are also a massive advantage for airlines and airports in reducing the processing time required per passenger. Using SITA’s solutions has even reduced the passenger processing time needed for a full Airbus A380 to less than 20 minutes. This efficiency reduces the possibility of missed connections caused by slow passenger processing, lessening the pressure on airline infrastructure and the demands on airline and airport staff. In addition, digital identities can also be integrated into frequent flyer programs, offering new value-added services.