By Corinna Schindler, Global Vice President Business Line Verification at Veridos.
Travel and mobility are key factors in our fast-paced and globalized world. Seamless travel describes concepts that offer a user-friendly and secure travel experience by allowing digitalized processing at borders. However, there are still several challenges to overcome when it comes to its implementation.
Over the last few decades, economic crises and critical security situations have repeatedly hit international air traffic and the travel industry. However, customer demand has never collapsed for long. It is therefore not surprising that passenger numbers are already recovering and even increasing following the COVID-19 pandemic.
Against this backdrop, airport operators, airlines, and authorities are facing increasing challenges in terms of the structural organization of air travel. Higher passenger numbers mean a greater need for more efficient and easy processes throughout the entire customer journey. At the same time, safety standards must not be compromised. Seamless travel is one possible solution to these complex challenges. The concept of seamless travel aims to minimize the traveler’s individual touchpoint with controls, check-ins, and physical documents and in its place provide a simplified, convenient travel experience.
Seamless travel: The journey starts in the app
Digitalized travel starts with the planning and organization of a trip. Users can easily book their hotel in just a few clicks, view suitable flights and pay for everything online from the comfort of their home. At their destination, they can easily reserve a rental car, and the corresponding app even takes care of check-in via self-service.
But one component remains physical for the time being: travelers must always carry ID cards or passports with them. In some places, they even still must physically apply for a visa or an entry application for their destination country. In the future, steps such as updating and applying for documents, such as passports, could also be implemented digitally.
However, the most serious obstacles on the road to fully digitized and seamless travel arise at the airport itself.
Contactless through the airport of tomorrow
Individual concepts of seamless travel have been implemented to varying degrees in certain regions. Within the Schengen Area, for example, EU citizens can scan their passports at an e-gate, which is far faster than the manual inspection lines.
However, current concepts and processes are not yet truly contactless. Passengers still need to provide credentials to enter security zones and the aircraft itself, such as in the form of a printed boarding pass or by showing their passport.
So, what would a traveler’s journey look like in an airport that truly embraces seamless travel? After booking online, passengers pass through the arrivals’ hall and, on the way to airport security, walk through a biometric corridor. There, a state-of-the-art camera system verifies the individuals and compares their passport and biometric data with both the information in the database and the passenger list. In this ideal scenario, the entire process takes place while they are on the move, so that travelers don’t even notice the security check. As well as simplifying and speeding up the process, it also eliminates contact points with equipment and direct contact with airport personnel – aspects that have become particularly important since the COVID-19 pandemic. Likewise, the toolset for identifying fraudulent identity documents has also developed. Even when identification is carried out via automatic biometric methods, manual checks are possible in cases of doubt or irregularities.
Once at the destination, the passenger data is already stored on the system and no additional checks are required. The rental car company will also have received the required information and the booked car will be available without customers having to wait. Immediately, the entire trip becomes less bureaucratic, more convenient and far faster due to reduced waiting times. If optimally implemented, passengers will no longer even be aware that they are passing through the various zones of an airport; instead, they can expect a contactless and seamless travel experience. However, the road to reaching this goal is a long one, full of challenges.
A concept in its infancy
Even if there are concrete ideas about seamless travelling concepts, decisive foundations for their implementation are still missing. What are the reasons for this? In addition to the technical requirements, the main obstacles lie in the need for international cooperation at all levels. While the private sector, especially airlines and airport operators, has already joined forces in umbrella organizations such as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) or the International Air Transportation Association (IATA), there are significant challenges of cooperation between government authorities with sovereign tasks.
Travelers’ personal data is a basic prerequisite to realize international seamless travel – both at the point of departure and destination. But the exchange of data between individual countries is not yet uniformly regulated. And even though there are isolated bilateral agreements and corresponding programs for air travelers, for example between the US and Germany, there is a lack of standardization – a problem that certainly cannot be solved in the short term. Such a solution would have to consider a lot of different legal aspects, as well as data protection issues. This shows that there is still a lot of work to be done in this area before a seamless travel concept can be implemented globally.
Different data protection laws in various countries are still an unsolved problem in this regard. Working groups such as the Secure Identity Alliance (SIA) are endeavoring to develop standards for interfaces and system concepts to realize an efficient exchange between countries.
To accelerate respective developments, some airlines and local authorities have already joined forces and offer their customers programs that promise fast processing of entry and exit procedures thanks to stored data. As sensitive personal data is collected here, providers should focus on cyber security, transparent handling and obtaining consent to ensure acceptance from travelers.
A question of technology
In addition, technology still faces some challenges. A biometric corridor that can identify and assign people beyond doubt requires powerful cameras, as well as the appropriate software. Notable innovation under development includes long e-gates that perform biometric identification. The use of a long field of vision is often the preferred method of choice here – capturing compliant images has become increasingly reliable in recent years. However, in a government environment, such as when running security checks, fingerprints are still considered more accurate. Iris identification is one trend attracting attention. This is considered highly secure. However, given the iris’s comparatively small area, high-resolution cameras need to perform the scan while in motion. Although the technology still has some challenges to overcome, iris scanning may prove to be a viable solution in the future.
The self-service offering is an important aspect of modern travel for passengers. The easier and less complicated it is for passengers to submit their personal data in advance, the less waiting time this process will take further down the line. To this end, approaches such as e-kiosks in airports have proved to be highly successful. Here, travelers fill out a questionnaire before their flight, scan their passport and verify their identity using biometric methods – such as facial recognition. Once the data has been successfully collected, they currently receive a printout that is checked by security. This solution, which is particularly widespread in the US, is a step towards simplified travel and offers great potential.
However, even if modern airports implement the latest solutions and enable seamless travel, not all countries are at the same technological level. Airports that cannot implement current technologies will therefore continue to exist in the future and will inevitably limit seamless travel offerings.
Quo vadis, seamless travel?
Many aspects influence the trend towards seamless travel. Automation and digitization are constantly leading to new solutions, for example in the field of touchless biometrics. Contactless biometric verification is not yet accurate enough for governmental standards and verifications, but shows huge potential for the future.
One of the biggest challenges is certainly the interaction between many different parties, especially the different requirements for private and government sectors. While airports and airline operators strive for an increase in digital technology, the security stakeholders don’t want to exclude human checkpoints altogether. Here, the focus is on safe and repeatable execution.
Nevertheless, the trend is clearly moving in the direction of seamless travel, albeit at locally varying speeds and despite the many local and global discussions that remain open. On the way to this goal, it is important to create new standards in international cooperation that enable collaboration between states and airlines and thus ensure the best future travel experience.