State of the art

Running through airport

Matthys Serfontein, Vice President, Airport Solutions with SITA says airports have now reached a tipping point in terms of being able to offer a truly seamless, walk through experience for passengers.

A secure walkthrough experience, from check-in to the aircraft door, has been an ambition of the best airports around the world for some time. But how can airports satisfy passengers’ demands for efficient, seamless journeys while also responding to calls for increased security? Airports, airlines, governments and technology providers are looking to the latest technologies to provide solutions to these conflicting demands.

Whatever the technology, it’s clear a wide range of stakeholders must come together if the industry is to attain the delicate balance between traveller convenience and the need to securely check travellers’ identities. Ultimately, it boils down to creating an efficient way of knowing who is passing through every point in the airport and whether they potentially pose a threat.

After years of steady progress, we have reached a tipping point. The air transport industry is now on the verge of being able to offer a truly seamless, secure walkthrough experience thanks to the latest application of biometric technology.

Since the introduction of ePassports, biometrics have made it easier to reliably check traveller identities and have reduced the opportunity for identity fraud. The process is simple. Biometric data, such as facial features and fingerprints, is digitally encoded within a chip embedded in the physical ePassport book. This enables real-time biometric checks of the holder which ensure the person carrying the passport is the rightful owner.

It is now possible to have biometric checks used at every point of the airport journey, ushering in the era of single token travel.

And so SITA launched Smart Path™, which allows passengers to move through the airport and board the aircraft by presenting a single digital token. This is complex technology delivering a remarkably simple solution. It allows a passenger’s biometric details to be captured through a facial scan at the first touch point in their journey. The biometric record is checked against the passenger’s travel documents and a secure single token is created.

Travellers can then use this single digital token as identification at each additional step of the journey – from check-in to the aircraft. Whether it’s during self-bag-drop, at border control or aircraft boarding – passengers simply complete a facial scan to verify who they are; there is no need for them to present a boarding pass, a passport or travel documents again.

This fast, secure and seamless walkthrough experience is already within reach of today’s passengers. SITA Smart Path has been trialed at a major airport in the Middle East and more pilot schemes are expected over the coming months.

The early trials have shown how Smart Path simplifies secure, passenger processing for everyone – airlines, airports, border authorities and, of course, passengers. Single token travel also allows several travel steps to be combined into a single interaction, speeding up the time needed to complete certain formalities.

Fast-tracking passengers through the airport check points brings benefits to passengers and airports alike. It improves security oversight and also elevates the passenger’s travel experience, while speeding up passenger processing and reducing the resources needed to manage the travel journey. A well-known statistic is that an extra 10 minutes in security reduces the average passenger’s retail spend by 30%. That’s significant, especially when multiplied across thousands of passengers each day.

One of the key benefits of Smart Path is that it integrates with existing airport infrastructure, including industry standard common-use self-service equipment, 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. Smart Path also integrates with government systems and databases, allowing integrated immigration and border checks.

Embracing mobile

This is just the start for this technology. Looking to the future, single token travel could become even more convenient for passengers.

The proliferation of mobile technology over the last few years has been closely tied to a surge in the use of digital credentials in day-to-day and online transactions. The use of digital identification is now a well-established phenomenon across many different industries. Precedents are being set and standards are being developed as these industries move towards digital identity checks, often through customers’ mobile devices.

SITA is well-known for its willingness to explore how emerging technologies can complement its existing solutions. SITA’s latest research, for instance, considers how mobile and blockchain technology can be used to facilitate an even better single travel token experience. What if passengers could use a single identity token stored permanently and securely on their mobile phones and simply swipe their device at each step of their journey, at any airport in the world?

While blockchain technology is most famous for being the underlying mechanism for Bitcoin, it could also help revolutionise traveller identity management thanks to its ability to ensure data privacy.

Potentially, this could enable any authority, anywhere in the world to simply scan both a passenger’s face and mobile device to verify their identity and travel status. Crucially, this can all be done without these authorities ever controlling or storing biometric details or personal information, since the entire transaction takes place securely via the blockchain.

The price passengers currently pay for convenience of travel usually means giving up control of personally identifiable information to one or all of airlines, airports and government authorities. This is because traveller data and identification information must be kept in a central database where agents and authorised users can access it. While access can be limited, privacy can never be absolutely guaranteed: central databases are subject to the possibility of cyber attacks where large numbers of records can be compromised. These concerns, among others, limit the viability of central database solutions that involve sensitive personally identifiable information.

And that’s the beauty of blockchain technology. It ensures passenger data is secure, encrypted, tamper-proof and unusable for any other purpose. At the same time, it eliminates the need for a single authority to own, process or store the data. The crypto-led computer science provides a network of trust, where the source and history of the data is verifiable by everyone.

SITA has recently worked with blockchain start-up ShoCard to determine the feasibility of trialling these concepts.  A single travel token or identity on a traveller’s mobile device is used to ease their journey through different airports and airlines.  It is still early days for these initial tests, and issues of scalability and adoption rates need to be examined. But SITA is looking at how the air transport industry can take advantage of the new era where underlying blockchain protocols provide trust so that individuals or authorities don’t have to.

The future of travel identity management looks bright. Single token travel will make it more efficient, more secure, and more convenient for passengers and those managing checkpoints across the airport.

A full walkthrough airport experience is possible today, but it’s only the beginning for single token travel. Watch this space.

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