In 2020, the pandemic swept the world into an unprecedented standstill, and we have spent the last few years trying to recover from it. COVID-19 hit all businesses hard, and the travel industry was no exception; airports were empty, flights were grounded, and for a while, the end was nowhere in sight.
The silver lining of the pandemic was that the entire industry came together quickly to implement changes in order to adapt to the situation, and all efforts have started to pay off. According to ACI World data, forecasts now estimate that 2022’s annual traffic represented 72% of the annual traffic of 2019―a substantial increase from 2021.
As we are all learning to live in a post-pandemic world, for the first time since March 2020, key indicators are showing tangible signs of recovery. An increasing number of people are planning to travel more frequently and further afield than before the pandemic. Travellers are also showing confidence towards the measures put in place by airports and airlines to create a safe environment, allowing them to travel with peace of mind once again. These elements continue to support the long-term and sustainable recovery of air travel, all thanks to the immediate action taken by the industry.
While air traffic has not yet reached pre-pandemic levels, airports have found it very challenging to welcome back the sudden surge of travellers. This rapid recovery imposed an enormous strain on the industry, which has been further exacerbated by personnel shortages that developed during the pandemic. Staff shortage, stricter airport processes and additional document checks have negatively impacted the processing of travellers, adding further pressure on airports worldwide.
The ASQ 2022 Global Traveller Survey revealed that 86% of respondents are planning to travel by air in the year to come. This is the highest intention score since the beginning of the pandemic. Travellers’ level of confidence that airports and airlines provide a safe environment for passengers has also increased: 81% are confident compared to 74% a year ago.
73% of travellers had concerns about their future experience at the airport. Contrary to what one may believe, these concerns were not linked to the pandemic, as only 28% were worried about “bad air quality” and 34% about “uncleaned areas.” In a significant shift of emphasis, efficiency in airport processes now shows as travellers’ main concern.
The good news is that the report not only lists the challenges, but also addresses a wish list from travellers to help overcome them. Eight solutions to improve the traveller’s airport journey were evaluated in this survey. The items were presented in a randomized order:
The top three solutions that travellers were most likely to use in the future were: remote processing solutions (69%), self-service solutions (72%) and real-time information (75%).
The mindset of travellers is crucial here. They want to have greater control over their airport journey in order to reduce their anxiety levels. And this is why travellers are more inclined to adopt solutions that provide them with essential real-time information. This will allow them to make decisions to ensure a frictionless experience, and help them take control of certain processes that will reduce their dependence on airport staff.
Based on these key findings, in order to significantly improve the overall passenger experience, the digital transformation of a traveller’s journey has to become the norm.
To do this securely and efficiently, the actions below should be followed beforehand:
Digitalizing the airport process will bring many benefits to all parties:
Combining digitalization with automation/self-service solutions will ease the challenges faced by the industry. As the volume of passengers has increased rapidly and with resources being scarce, it is easy to understand why airports have been reaching full capacity. By automating processes, for example, with the use of self-service equipment such as check-in kiosks, self-service bag drops, automated pre-security/boarding gates etc., airports will be able to securely process more passengers without having to hire extra staff or extend infrastructure.
Primary concerns when transitioning to remote/self-service/automated processes are: how can airports, and individual airlines, be sure that travellers are who they claim to be? Also, does the travel document really belong to them? Biometrics and the Digital Travel Credential (DTC) are technologies that will help accelerate the digital transformation of the traveller’s journey while maintaining a high level of trust in their identity.
A DTC is a virtual credential derived from a state-issued passport. It is an exact representation of the electronic machine-readable travel document and contains the same information (biographical, biometrics), and provides the same level of security as a physical passport. In order to ensure global interoperability of the DTC, all technology providers must fully comply with the technical specifications defined by the International Civil Aviation Organization and ISO.
Once created, the DTC is securely stored in the owner’s smart device. The DTC will guarantee data integrity as it is derived directly from the national ID app and can only be shared when the owner grants consent. Due to its contactless nature, there is little doubt that the DTC will be at the center of any new airport processes that increases security while speeding up the passenger journey, thus balancing these two essential objectives. Travellers will be able to authenticate their identity by sharing their DTC throughout their journey without having to show their physical passport.
Biometrics are the most reliable technology when verifying a traveller’s identity. They can be used throughout the traveller’s journey, from remote check-in via smartphone to boarding. Contactless biometric technologies make the traveller’s journey more secure and convenient. For this reason, airports should only partner with top-tier technology providers that have been independently benchmarked by authorities such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Airports should also test available solutions in their own environment to ensure they deliver the expected results.
The implementation of the DTC is expected to be a game changer, one that will open the door to a fully digitalized process. It will allow passengers to share their data securely while stakeholders can trust the data they have received. Travellers can share their DTC prior to their trip, enabling stakeholders to conduct any necessary checks. This will permit travellers to enjoy a secure and streamlined process, and use their biometric data (shared earlier) to sweep past the airport touchpoints.
The increase in digitalized services across various industries means that people are accustomed to sharing their personal data including their biometrics. Despite a global shift toward digitalization, one concern remains, that is of data privacy. Governments and the private sector will need to address this topic transparently to eliminate any doubts that travellers may have. Travellers must maintain control of their data and choose with whom they temporarily share it.
The digital transformation of travellers’ journey is already underway. Several pilot programs are being conducted at airports around the world. Singapore Changi Airport has fully automated the traveller’s journey, from remote check-in to boarding, and all this thanks to biometric technology.
In the first half of 2023, the European Commission will be launching a pilot program to test the DTC on KLM flights between Canada and the Netherlands for three months. The Dutch State Secretary for Justice and Security, Eric van der Burg, announced that up to 5,000 Dutch people will be participating. The goal of this pilot is to better understand what impact the DTC could have on Europeans. Participating travellers will create their own DTC. An app has been specifically developed to allow participating travellers to use their smartphones to read the chip in their travel documents. Users will then take a selfie, which is compared to the photo stored in the chip. Travellers must still carry their physical passport with them, as it will be used to verify the DTC.
The DTC highlights the need to move toward greater cooperation between key stakeholders, namely airports, airlines, and government agencies, to guarantee a smoother and more secure travel experience. It also demonstrates that a more comprehensive process that integrates border control is needed, or even an end-to-end procedure from the departure country to the arrival country to create an entirely seamless experience.
In addition to the elements above, travellers expect other improvements. One example is the management of luggage handling. The effective management of travellers’ luggage can play a fundamental role in bettering the overall passenger experience. The sudden increase of passengers has accentuated this issue, in particular identifying lost baggage. Current solutions are limited, which is why deploying an automated baggage search solution, based on Artificial Intelligence, would considerably help lost-luggage operators with their daily tasks. It would also minimize passenger stress related to traveling, improve the brand image of airports and airlines and reduce related costs.
What is clearly apparent is that airports can no longer continue with the same processes. Travellers are demanding a streamlined airport experience. Longer queues linked to the lack of qualified staff and the implementation of new checks, in particular the European Entry/Exit System, will only further aggravate their frustration. Airports must integrate new solutions capable of addressing future challenges. They need to accelerate the digitalization of the traveller journey and turn pilot programs into the norm.
Nicolas PHAN has spent his entire career in the security and IT industry working for international companies where he held responsibilities to develop successful strategies, marketing and product management.
Within IDEMIA since the beginning of 2019, Nicolas brings his knowledge of the Border control and travel markets in order to support the company development on those mission critical topics and as such, is notably an active member of the international organizations addressing the challenges related to passenger experience such as ACI.