Smart border management for seamless international air travel

Ana B. Hinojosa is the Director of Compliance and Facilitation at the World Customs Organization


The invention of the aircraft in 1903 was considered a big leap for mankind, enabling people to fly through the skies to reach their destination. Air transport made it possible to travel farther distances in a significantly shorter time. Over the last hundred years, the world has witnessed significant growth in air passenger flows, thanks to the opening of new routes; increasing opportunities for business and tourism; the introduction of new, more convenient and efficient types of aircraft; the construction of new airports; and the upgrading of existing airports in term of scale and capacity. IATA estimates that passenger numbers are expected to reach 7.3 billion by 2034. Over half of the world’s 1.1 billion tourists have crossed State borders by air to reach their destinations.

This ever-increasing air travel provides the potential for the economy to grow, for example, as a result of tourism, business, meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions. At the same time, it presents challenges to border control authorities, including customs, in terms of ensuring passenger facilitation, safety, security and compliance with relevant laws and regulations.

Border control authorities face growing security and other risks. These include transnational crimes, such as the movement of sanctioned individuals and foreign terrorist fighters, illicit financial flows, smuggling of contraband items, the movement of restricted and prohibited goods, and the miss-declaration of high-value items in passenger baggage.

Border control agencies often use extensive and layered safety and security checks as a way of delivering their mandate to manage the security risks associated with air transport and to cope with its challenges. These checks are inconvenient, unpleasant and stressful for passengers who may have to stand in long queues to comply with all kinds of regulatory formalities.

Border control employee looking at smart borders passenger lines

The introduction of SMART borders

To reduce the burden on passengers at the airport terminal, customs authorities and partner government agencies are continuously looking for more efficient ways to manage borders through innovative and collaborative approaches. To this end, the World Customs Organization (WCO) – the intergovernmental organization for customs administration – has introduced an initiative promoting the transformation of frontiers into “SMART” borders for seamless trade, travel and transport.

SMART borders aim to make border-crossing activities, such as international travel, less cumbersome by managing procedures smartly”. The initiative follows five guiding principles: Secure, Measurable, Automated, Risk Management-based and Technology-driven.

  • Secure: refers to the objective of border control to safeguard international travel against the inherent risk of transnational crime and other Customs offences, while facilitating legitimate travel.
  • Measurable: refers to a performance-based culture that rests on self-evaluation and objective measurement, aiming at obtaining well-conceived decisions that can easily be implemented and assessed.
  • Automated: refers to the pursuit of a less cumbersome border environment that takes full advantage of automated processes to mine, share and effectively analyse data.
  • Risk Managementbased: refers to a key approach to modern customs processes, involving risk profiling methods using data analytics.
  • Technology-driven refers to the pursuit of further studies and “proof of concept” exercises to explore the use of emerging technologies.

From a customs perspective, the SMART guiding principles are applicable to managing not only the movement of passengers, but also the goods and conveyances (means of transport). Travel is one important area where these principles apply. The SMART borders initiative, for instance, has helped customs conduct end-to-end passenger controls in a non-intrusive way with minimal contact and physical inspection, thus contributing to enhancing the overall convenience to passengers.

The initiative is also in line with current recommended practice on the use of advance passenger data in the form of advance passenger information (API), the passenger name record (PNR) for passenger risk management and targeting, thus facilitating a large majority of legitimate passengers and controlling risky ones. API and PNR data have enabled customs to target known and unknown threats prior to the arrival of passengers at the terminal.

Passenger checking in at a kiosk

Effective implementation of API/PNR systems

 Effective border management practices cannot ignore the importance of inclusive collaboration with and between border control authorities, as well as with private sector stakeholders such as airlines and airline service providers. The Passenger Single Window is one example of a collaboration platform that could increase the efficiency of passenger data exchange. This platform would enable the air industry to transmit API/PNR data once, at a single point of contact, to be further shared by the relevant border control agencies. It would establish a passenger information unit (PIU), enabling enhanced coordination among all the relevant agencies.

The quality and accuracy of passenger data are keys to effective risk management and could increase the accuracy of hit rates in passenger profiling and targeting. Enhancing data quality is not an overnight process. The WCO, together with ICAO and IATA, meet regularly within the framework of the WCO/IATA/ICAO API/PNR Contact Committee to help Members identify data quality issues, understand the cause of problems, mitigate risks, and find appropriate solutions to increase data quality.

To complement passenger risk assessment and targeting methods using API/PNR data, the WCO has developed a practitioner’s handbook on data analysis. It offers guidance on how to leverage big data and data analytics, outlines data governance-related issues, and presents some common data analysis tools, such as predictive analytics, cognitive computing and statistical programming languages. The handbook can help customs administrations working in close cooperation with other relevant government agencies to develop and enhance data analytics strategies, operational frameworks, and associated skills and capabilities, whilst maintaining data protection, privacy and security.

While API/PNR data that contains a passenger’s biographic and reservation information has limits in terms of firmly identifying passengers, the use of biometric data – which is unique to each passenger and which would complement API/PNR data – could increase the level of confidence in passenger identification. However, this would entail necessary infrastructure, resources and process changes to existing environments.

Multimodal travel

More widely, customs administrations are responsible for overseeing not only air travel, but also travel via different modes of transport, such as by railway, road or cruise ship. In this interconnected world, it is common for travellers to use combined modes of transport for their itinerary. These flexible options include departing by air and returning by high-speed train or bus; or departing by cruise ship and returning by air.

In order to address passenger risk comprehensively, the WCO is exploring end-to-end passenger facilitation and control for different modes of transport. It has taken advantage of existing knowledge and experience in the area of air transport and looked at the similarities and specificities of different transport environments.

Preliminary work has led to the following key findings:

  • insufficient advance passenger information is provided to border control agencies in the ocean mode of transport;
  • implementation of existing industry security protocols and regulations is inconsistent;
  • cruise ship routes often involve countries which constitute a high source of risk in terms of contraband or human trafficking; and
  • ships may stay in port for long periods of time, offering opportunities for illegal activities to take place.

These vulnerabilities carry inherent border and security risks, such as illicit drugs, contraband, illegal migration, terrorism and piracy.

The WCO has gathered information on a number of Member initiatives to explore the transmission of passenger data in the area of railway travel using high-speed trains. Preliminary key findings indicate that there are different models of passenger handling resulting in different ways of collecting passenger reservation information (e.g. via websites, stations, travel agencies, global distribution sales, or call centres). Harmonization and standardization of passenger handling practice would be necessary to achieve efficient passenger data transmission.

Abstract image of multi-modal travel icons and passport

Security Programme

The WCO introduced a Security Programme in 2016. The WCO Security Programme has been recognized as an important part in the G7 Action Plan on Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism. The WCO continues to work with Member customs administrations to enhance their security capability, including through initiatives focussed on:

  • strengthening controls over the supply chain of components and precursors for Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs);
  • tackling the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons;
  • enforcement of strategic trade controls;
  • terrorist financing; and
  • more effective passenger risk assessment processes, including through the use of API/PNR data.

The assistance provided by the WCO to its Members may include the technical implementation of a system that will enable the provision of API and PNR data by airlines, the receipt of the data by customs and their analysis of that data to identify high-risk travellers.

The receipt and analysis components are to be delivered through deployment of the Global Travel Assessment System (GTAS), related software, and training in its maintenance and use.  Once the airline data connection is established, the United States Customs and Border Protection will install the WCO’s GTAS targeting software.

Advice is also provided to Customs administrations in relation to the development and implementation of required legislation and policies for the acquisition, storage, use and sharing of the data.

End-to-end passenger controls training has also been developed by the WCO, for use by Customs in either face-to-face training or for use in e-learning modes.

The training covers both pre- and post-arrival risk assessment, including passenger behavioural analysis and questioning techniques.  It is designed for officers who manage or supervise passenger management and risk analysis activities.