Unintended consequences: Digital identity and airport responses to COVID-19

Kirk Goodlet by Kirk Goodlet | May 18, 2021

The use of biometrics to support airport and airline processes is not new. On the contrary, ePassports have been around for over two decades and leveraging fingerprints or irises for security purposes has been around for just as long. In the latter 2010s, airports sought new ways to facilitate the movement of passengers in light of serious capacity-related challenges. Check-in lobbies and security checkpoints, for example, reached capacity in some of the global mega hubs, which forced airport operators to take a hard look at their processes and the ways in which congestion affected passenger experience.

The evolution of digital identity

Initiatives to facilitate movement of passengers efficiently and safely were well underway before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the aviation industry circa March 2020. Indeed, the World Economic Forum (WEF), the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) all made great progress on digital identity concepts. While they were first envisaged to solve challenges around efficiency, digital identity initiatives quickly pivoted to solve a host of complications associated with the COVID-19 and its profound effects on the aviation sector.

As a response to the global health crisis, digital identity initiatives began to focus less on capacity and more on consistency in how information, especially entry or exit requirements, is transmitted across stakeholders. As COVID-19 testing results and, more recently, vaccines are being introduced across the globe, there is an increasing need to standardize and harmonize documentation in a way that is recognized by states, airlines, and airports. For the industry to support recovery, a passenger must feel confident in the process. For example, if a passenger needs to travel from Winnipeg, Canada to Guangzhou, China, with a couple transit points in between, the documentation requirements alone are enough to dissuade them from travelling altogether. This scenario must be prevented in an effort to win back the confidence of consumers and support our once-vibrant industry.

Travel passes and their role in industry recovery

For that reason, initiatives like The Commons Project’s “Common Pass” or IATA’s “Travel Pass” strive to collate an individual’s health records in a secure and standardized way. These two examples highlight some of the ways in which digital identity initiatives have pivoted in response to COVID-19.

The ACI World Facilitation and Services Standing Committee (WFSSC) has been working since the inception of the pandemic on a report that focuses on various digital identity initiatives across the world and how these initiatives may influence airports in the future. Many airports have transformed parts of their terminals from shopping concourses to medical clinics in very short order. How to leverage digital identity and touchless solutions lay at the crux of airport transformations.

The Future of Travel and Digital Identity at Airports
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While the industry generally agrees in principles of interoperability, standardization, and harmonization, there remains a high degree of fragmentation in how digital identity and data are created, shared, and stored across biometric initiatives. Each trial might propose different means by which a digital identity is created or distributed between airports, airlines, and government agencies. In part, this is due to an absence in a standard approach to digital identity, which has led to several competing and overlapping initiatives.

In October 2020, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) introduced a timely and fundamental document to support digital identity in the future. In its document, “Guiding Core Principles for the Development of Digital Travel Credential (DTC),” ICAO explains the DTC concept and defines the DTC lifecycle, from creation to revocation. While there are several ways to facilitate data from one stakeholder to another, ICAO has laid out a profoundly important foundation on which digital identity can build. As a result, existing initiatives will need to reconcile how the DTC plays into each.

ICAO has played a pivotal role during this pandemic and their role in standardization of e-Machine Readable Documents (e-MRD) both before and during the pandemic cannot be overstated. ACI World digital identity report makes clear that the DTC concept should be prioritized as the primary form of digital identity. Nevertheless, additional trials—and those currently underway—must highlight best practices on how data are facilitated across the travel continuum.

Digital innovation in a time of crisis

Given the profound impact COVID-19 has had on the aviation sector, it is difficult to celebrate much in the last year. Yet, the global response to COVID-19 has expedited work on digital initiatives and, in some ways, accelerated collaboration between airports, airlines, and governments. The DTC and the ways in which digital identities are established will enhance initiatives to create a health “passport” or certificates. These same responses to COVID-19 might also accelerate the standardization and digitization of visas or other travel authorizations.

In any case, the pandemic has reminded us that our industry is as fragile as it is vibrant. It has reinforced the need to collaborate broadly and effectively. The spread of COVID-19 has forced stakeholders to pivot on trials and to consider adding new layers of biosecurity to established initiatives. The degree to which air industry and government are aligned has never been closer. However, as the report has shown, the use of biometrics and digital identity management is not new. The pace at which technology is advancing, along with changes to demographics and passenger expectations, forces the aviation industry stakeholders to look at how digital identity will be incorporated into many of the legacy processes still in place today.

While recovery will take years, digital identity will be at the forefront of strengthening the aviation sector and the role that airports play within it.  

Kirk Goodlet

Kirk Goodlet

Senior Director at InterVISTAS Consulting
Kirk Goodlet is Senior Director at InterVISTAS Consulting. Prior to joining InterVISTAS, Kirk worked in the aviation industry for 10 years. Kirk has extensive experience in strategic planning, border and security facilitation, airport accessibility and barrier-free travel, biometric technologies, and passenger experience. In addition to his work in the aviation sector, Kirk helped establish the Office of Biometrics and Identity Management (OBIM) as part of Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA). Kirk serves on the Board of Directors for Inclusion Winnipeg and is a champion of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA). He holds a masters and PhD from the University of Waterloo and is a designated International Airport Professional (IAP) by Airports Council International (ACI) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) .
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