The setback that propelled us forward

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The COVID-19 pandemic had disastrous effects on the movement of passengers at airports around the world. The plethora of non-standardized, health-related documents and proofs required to travel meant that airline check-in agents and border officials had to manually inspect these documents. Automated processes such as mobile or web check-in, self-service check-in or bag drop kiosk and automated border control gates became operationally ineffective. Despite the low international traffic levels during the pandemic, the processing time at airports more than doubled in some instances[1] due to extensive manual controls.

The return to manual document verification processes was a setback to past years. It happened despite public health recommendations to physically distance and limit face-to-face and hand-to-hand interaction.

From Government Digital Health Platforms…

To address this challenge during the pandemic, many states introduced government-managed digital health platforms to collect health information directly from passengers, perform the vetting of this information as per their own public health and border entry requirements and issue a confirmation that the information was received and in some instances, a digital ok to travel notification to passengers.

By issuing a notification of approval to travel to each passenger, authorities increase their controls over their health requirements, while simplifying and enabling automated check-in and streamlining border controls at arrival. This greater interaction between authorities and passengers, taking place off-airport, contributes to relieving congestion at various touchpoints. The setting up of such health platforms and issuing a notification of approval to travel to passengers is also a Recommended Practice contained in the Amendment 29 to Annex 9 – Facilitation adopted by the ICAO Council[2].

As the industry rebuilds there is an opportunity to leverage off the health platforms created by governments during the crisis and create a new vision for the contactless travel journey using digital credentials and the pre-travel verification concept. There is a need to decrease the reliance of the air travel sector on manual document verifications performed by airline agents and border control officers. To enable this transition, harmonization is required to enable automation and digitization of document verification. While the issuance of a notification of approval to travel is already an ICAO Recommended Practice, aviation stakeholders must take steps to standardize this notification to achieve greater interoperability, enhance trust, and ensure a streamlined processing for all verifiers.

The setting up of digital health platforms, despite having been developed due to an urgent and immediate need, has contributed to consolidating the pre-travel verification concept. This is a success for laying out the vision for a contactless travel journey. The pre-travel verification concept implies that each passenger can demonstrate to relevant authorities their compliance with entry requirements prior to travelling.

… to a Travel Platform

Digital health platforms are mirroring the web portals that over 60 authorities have already put in place for several years where passengers can digitally obtain a visa or another form of travel authorizations. Some governments have replaced their paper-based custom declarations with a digital custom declaration to be filled out by passengers prior to arrival. These solutions have been deployed by many states of different levels of development and from all regions. Pre-travel verification solutions can be implemented by most states.

As pre-travel verification models mature, there is an opportunity to extend the scope of the functionalities of these government digital platforms and to create greater interactions between authorities and passengers. We can foresee the setting up of a single travel platform where passengers can fill their immigration, health, security and customs requirements. Not only will this ‘one stop shop’ improve the compliance of passengers with all entry requirements, it will also increase the control of authorities over all aspects of their borders and reduce the risks of airlines carrying inadmissible passengers.  A great deal of coordination among national agencies is required to achieve such a comprehensive platform, hence the importance of a ‘National Air Transport Facilitation Committee’ or similar national coordination body.

Harmonization and Digital Credentials

The pre-travel verification concept relies on passengers’ digital credentials and information, e.g., their identity information, information to obtain a travel authorization, health proofs, etc. With a standardized and secured digital notification of approval to travel, we may foresee in the future a requirement for passengers to hold this trusted notification of approval to travel along with a trusted digital identity as the only proof required to travel. Such credentials would enable both industry stakeholders and authorities to roll out biometric-enabled touchpoints more easily.

ICAO readily provides technical specifications for trusted digital credentials such as the electronic Machine Readable Travel Documents (eMRTDs), the Digital Travel Credential (DTC), Visible Digital Seal for Non-Constraint environments (VDS-NC), Digital Travel Authorization (DTA), Electronic Travel Systems (ETS), etc. With emerging specifications in the digital realm and the development of open standards, the interoperability of these digital credentials should be prioritized from the outset of the development of such standards.

The setback observed during the pandemic when it comes to traveller processes may well be the propeller of a truly contactless passenger journey relying on digital identity technologies, with significant improvements to operational efficiency and security.

[1] Digitalization Needed for Smooth Restart, IATA, May 2021 and From Restart to Recovery, a Blueprint for Simplifying Air travel, IATA, November 2021

[2] Recommended Practice 10.6 to become applicable in November 2022 under the Amendment 29 to Annex 9.


About the author

Karine Boulet Gaudreault is Senior Manager of Passenger Facilitation, OSS-Infrastructure and Customer Experience at IATA


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