Interview: Sean Farrell, Head of Portfolio Management, Government Solutions, SITA
04 August 2017 07:33 GMT

As airports in the US and other countries continue to trial and implement advanced biometric technology, it seems the travel world has never been closer to providing better security while ensuring increased passenger convenience.

But what is fuelling the accelerated evolution, and is it feeding into the development of increasing use of identity technology by governments?

Planet Biometrics raised these and other issues with Sean Farrell , head of Portfolio Management, Government Solutions, SITA.

What has held development back in terms of identity innovation in air travel, and where are we going?

If you look at most airports today, you can see that immigration, the security authorities, airports and airlines are often operating in silos – that is to say they aren’t cooperating and realizing the potential benefits that can be achieved by sharing data about passengers.    

Airlines carry the responsibility to check that a passenger has the right documentation for the country they are leaving from and flying to. For the airlines this means they often check travel documents at multiple points in the travel process.  Most of the time, airlines are just capturing basic information from the passport - they don’t have the tools available to really authenticate documents and to ensure that all visas are correct.  The existing manual checks are an impediment to airlines rolling out more self-service solutions which SITA’s research shows are certainly preferred by both passengers and the airlines.

If you can get collaboration going between all the airport stakeholders then you can automate a lot of these identity-related processes and checks  and ensure  there is a secure way to identify the traveller.

Here the answer is the use of biometrics linked to secure government issued credentials.  Once enrolled, biometrics can be used to securely identify each passenger at each downstream step in the journey, from checking in to bag drops and boarding. This will make the process faster and more secure since the biometric links the passenger back to their government vetted credential and identity.

Can blockchain and biometrics combine to create seamless travel?

I’d explore the two things separately. Firstly, on biometrics there is absolutely good progress, and these are already being used extensively at airports, building out from their well-established use at immigration checkpoints.   

The majority of passengers today are using a secure government-issued document, the ePassport, featuring face and fingerprint biometrics. The situation is really ripe for the industry to roll out biometrics extensively. The US is talking about rolling out biometric exit in 18 months and many airports are planning to introduce  end-to-end biometrics systems within a relatively short time-frame.

Blockchain on the other hand is much newer and a very interesting technology that allows passengers and airport stakeholders to share information in a unique way that is very secure.  For example, when the passenger enters one country, potentially the blockchain can be used to share travel history in a way that allows immigration authorities to build confidence in the traveller’s identity and risk level.  All the information can be available and shared under the control of the traveller. It is a very interesting technology but is much further out because as with any new technology it suffers from the issue of gaining critical mass, particularly when you consider that the existing technology – ePassports are typically replaced on a 10-year cycle.

How close are we to the prospect of digital passports?

Even if all the governments in all the world decided to replace their 10-year passports, we are still looking at a relatively long timeframe. As an alternative or addition to current processes we could start seeing adoption in the next couple of years, but I think realistically we are looking at at least  15 years for a replacement of physical passports with digital passports to a world where the majority of passengers are using one and the airport and airlines can rely on it.  

Do you think identity management at the airport can feed wider identity usage, say in smart cities?

Well a lot of what is driving this technology is broader government and commercial initiatives. Governments have a great interest in being able to reliably identify citizens to control access to a range of services and businesses want to do the same for a whole range of other use cases.

Governments are really going to continue to drive advances in and the evolution of identity documents. But other industries are going to get onboard such as the finance industry, and when the new technologies reach a critical mass – the airlines and airports can then leverage them to improve the security and ease of travel.