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Manuel Deloche discusses how SITA's Passenger Processing Portfolio is alleviating the stresses of pre-journey travel authorization and identity validation to improve customer experience, smooth passenger flow at terminals, and ease airport capacity constraints.

Why do you like working in the industry, and what do you find exciting about your area of work?

I've always been a very avid traveler, and before joining SITA, I'd worked for 20 years in such areas as electronic passports and identity cards – the physical aspects of documents, the IT solutions behind them, and their mobile counterparts. And then, I joined SITA, and there was a synergistic connection between the world I'd been working in and the SITA world with its focus on biometrically-enabled travel. So, it was a natural transition into my portfolio, which is focused on helping our customers deliver great passenger experiences.

SITA’s Passenger Processing portfolio looks at everything we as travelers experience when going through an airport – especially the elements associated with check-in, bag-drop, security, and aircraft boarding. From the passenger's point of view, it's the most visible aspect of SITA’s business.

What's exciting is that our relationship with our customers goes way beyond a conventional supplier/customer interaction. Instead, we work collaboratively with our airport and airline customers to shape new solutions that enhance the passenger experience and drive operational efficiency. The fruits of these unified efforts drive customer choices, loyalty, and determine the success of one airport over another. It is a privilege for us at SITA to be at the heart of this.

Describe the key business imperative and industry challenges.

These are tough times for aviation – with staffing shortages (a legacy of the pandemic), an unexpectedly fast return of demand for air travel, and lingering uncertainties around energy and fuel prices on which our industry is so heavily reliant. What's required is a massive shift to digitalization to facilitate automation, which in turn eases reliance on aviation's (still under-resourced) human workforce and helps increase passenger throughput capacity at airports. Digitalization will also enable our airline and airport customers to reduce operational cost pressures, provide them with a competitive advantage, and help them win the battle for market share.

This is why we're witnessing a transformation at airports with large-scale adoption of digitally enabled self-service solutions at check-in kiosks and bag drops to enable airports to deliver a high standard of customer experience using automation. The reduced workforce can, therefore, be more intelligently deployed to better serve those passengers who rely on a more personal interaction, including those with special needs and those who are not 'digital natives'.

Deployment of SITA's digital solutions will mean that soon, travelers will be able to present either their physical ID documents or their digital counterparts to take a plane, domestically or internationally, on a massive scale. This is now becoming an expectation, not a 'nice to have', so our imperatives are oriented around addressing this expectation and making the digitalized end-to-end journey a reality.

How are airports and airlines automating and facilitating the passenger journey?

They're investing in key technologies to streamline the passenger experience across every step of the journey while minimizing reliance on staff resources – a post-COVID challenge. By 2025, 63% of airports and 51% of airlines plan to have biometrically enabled self-boarding. And this investment is a necessity for airports of every size and at any location, not just large hubs. Smaller airports, for example, also need affordable versions of these solutions to enable them to operate within tight financial margins – typically without the non-aviation revenue opportunities associated with the major airports.

On the biometrics side, we're facilitating the enrollment of passengers to avoid queues and improve flow through the airport. By the end of 2023, SITA will be providing close to 4,500 biometric touchpoints at 28 airports across the world, a colossal undertaking being implemented in collaboration with our biometrics partner NEC. Significantly, we're the only company that's integrated biometrics into a Frequent Flyer Program. If you're with Star Alliance, you can enroll once via the Star Alliance mobile app and then take multi-leg trips across their networks without the need for re-enrollment. Eventually, there's the real potential of the passenger using their biometrics to enroll just once for both outbound and inbound travel on the same trip. We're now actively talking to other airports and airlines that seek to leverage this tech.

Furthermore, to alleviate stress at passenger terminals, we're extending passenger enrollment beyond the airport perimeter with the introduction of SITA Flex Box, a 'common use solution' for check-in and bag tagging. SITA Flex Box can be installed in parking lots, bus stations and coffee shops to reduce airport congestion and increase counter capacity inside airports.

What impact do automated processes have on reducing passenger waiting times and overall operational efficiency?

That's something we're closely measuring. Capacity-constrained airports are acutely aware that to cope with increasing passenger traffic, they need to speed customers through the touchpoints. Our self-service check-in kiosks can accelerate passenger processing by up to 25%, improving passenger experiences thanks to reduced waiting times.

SITA Smart Path biometrics, for example, has been proven to reduce aircraft boarding by up to 30%, and this also links to the all-important non-aviation revenues. There's a proven correlation between passenger satisfaction and willingness to spend money in the terminal. The smoother their flow is through the checkpoints, the more likely they are to purchase items at retail and food outlets.

What technologies and innovations are being implemented in terms of identity validation at airports?

Over half of airports intend to deploy secure single biometric tokens across all touchpoints by 2025. These tokens make it possible for the passenger’s ID to be securely stored on their own mobile devices, replacing physical passports and travel documents. The traveler’s digital identity will be the primary token against which identity confirmations, risk assessments, and authorizations are made throughout the travel process.

SITA leads the market in delivering simple, fast, and secure solutions where your face is your passport and your boarding pass (SITA Smart Path), and your smartphone is your remote control for travel. We're bringing this vision to market via the DTC (digital travel credential) pilot we're running. Once perfected, passengers will have a much more streamlined journey through the terminal.

How do airports and airlines ensure that the automation processes maintain the necessary security and privacy measures?

We've designed our solutions to protect personal data using multiple encryption layers. SITA Smart Path helps governments and airlines authenticate documentation quickly and accurately at checkpoints. And we don't, for example, store information longer than is necessary.

Biometric tokens at the airport only remain in the system for the duration of the flight (plus a couple of hours) which avoids having to show passports and boarding passes repetitively. We've invested millions to reinforce our cybersecurity processes, and by design, we avoid exposure to issues for our customers, our shareholders, and ourselves.

How do airports balance adopting new innovations and maintaining a human touch in passenger interactions to provide a personalized experience?

Low-cost and legacy carriers have differing approaches to personalization, and the human touch factor has varying importance. Not everyone is a 'digital native,' and travelers with disabilities will often seek the reassurance that they can access human assistance whenever required – usually when something has gone wrong.

This contrasts with the majority of Gen Zs who are happy to complete their journeys without ever speaking to another human. The key is in understanding where technology can augment and support the passenger experience with appropriate incorporation of human touch to deliver what the passenger really values.

For example, SITA Flex APIs enable agents (with a digital device) to roam the check-in area and help passengers who are having issues with self-service kiosks or who are looking for agent support. Using their device, agents can access the customer booking, check them in, and remotely print bag tags. In the past this flexibility would have been unheard of.