Restarting International Travel with Technology

Sept. 23, 2021
Emerging technology is getting international travel out of the holding pattern it’s been in as COVID-19 continues to strike different areas at different rates, causing ever evolving regulations to enter and exit countries.

After a promising spring and summer filled with vaccinations and loosening quarantine restrictions, the delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus (COVID-19) is now reminding the world it’s still in the midst of a pandemic. For those vaccinated, the world and skies are more open than they were a year ago, with the new obstacle being how to verify the vaccination status of would-be world travelers.

It’s a problem vaccine passports and biometric technology are solving.

Rise of the Travel Pass

The IATA Travel Pass was originally conceived and worked on as a contactless travel app before the pandemic struck. When COVID-19 emerged and shuttered the aviation industry, the IATA development team retuned the app to serve as a tool to help aviation rebound.

Now, 51 airlines from all corners of the globe have enrolled with and are trialing the IATA Travel Pass.

“Historically, we were working on a contactless application and the objective of that application was to use facial recognition in order to process the passengers throughout the airport in a more fluid way,” explains Frédéric Leger, director, airport, passenger, cargo and security products, IATA.

The Travel Pass would have travelers scan their passports, take a picture of themselves along with a motion capture to prove they’re alive, then put that digital identification on their phone. Then a passenger could transmit that data via the Travel Pass to the airline and airport and go seamlessly through the airport using only facial recognition.

Leger says that they had a handful of airlines and governments working with them on the app when COVID-19 surfaced.

“We immediately identified the fact that, of course, not handing over the paper passport and the paper boarding pass would already be a benefit in the crisis. But then, we also realized that we could, at the same time, include the test certificate, and, at a later stage, the passport certificate into the app and link it to our 60-years-old thematic platform where we are, in fact, checking the regulatory requirements for one individual to travel from one region to a destination through a transit point,” explains Leger.

He adds that at the same time, IATA was being asked to enter the vaccine passport space as there were other digital health providers positioning themselves as an intermediary between the airlines and the passengers at a potentially high cost for the industry.

“So, clearly having in mind those different aspects, we have entered that space,” Leger continues.

Like all of their products, IATA designed the Travel Pass in conjunction with the industry, taking in feedback from airlines and governmental bodies. Leger says all their solutions are based on industry standards and the Travel Pass is building off existing IATA framework – One ID – which is a prior initiative launched for the digital identification of passengers.

“We have set up an industry, a user group, whereby we have 20 airlines from around the world, of different sizes, helping us to define what is it we want to develop within the app. So, it was very driven by the airlines themselves,” Leger says.

On the governmental side, the challenge has been keeping up with the shifting regulatory landscape COVID-19 creates.

Leger notes they are constantly monitoring the regulatory requirements and what governments want to introduce, “because IATA has, historically, a very good relationship with governments and with international organizations.”

“We’re managing the travel requirement regulations. They were doing it for passports, visas, and now they are focusing also on the health aspect,” he continues. “As you can imagine, the rules are changing, because some countries are moving from green or orange to red countries. So, the team is very, very busy.”

The Travel Pass is updated daily, with Leger saying that the app used to be updated roughly 50 times a week and now it is updated more than 200 times.

The app has peaked above 200 updates in a single day due to COVID regulation changes.

“For example, when the European Commission is introducing the Vaccine Certificate and the QR code that is made available on your paper certificate or on the digital certificate, obviously Travel Pass is able to scan that QR code and to generate your digital Vaccination Certificate or Test Certificate into Travel Pass. It’s for you to use it, to check against the regulations, to see if it’s good for your destination and transit point, but also to use on your phone to show to the different stakeholders that you have been vaccinated and that it’s not a fake certificate,” Leger says.

The Travel Pass is also able to interface with different vaccine passport programs and differing government’s regulatory apps and frameworks.

“The app is able to scan the different QR codes that are made available from the different governments. So, in Singapore or in Qatar or in China, they were the first countries to issue the certificate with a QR code that can be flashed by an application for you to ingest the information of your certificate on your phone and create that digital certificate. So, today I think we have written more than 30 types of QR codes from different parts of the world. And we are adding new countries’ QR codes, as soon as they make it available. So, that’s one way we connect the different landscapes developed by the governments,” Leger says.

The other way the Travel Pass connects to verify a passenger’s status is via a government’s national database of tests and certificates. The app can pull from a connected government’s database of tests or vaccination certifications for a passenger to then show at the airport.

“We are also giving the possibility for you, if you decide so, to share your digital certificate with the airlines or with the governments, so that you can be processed a little bit faster than if you have to show your phone,” points out Leger. “But again, this remains the decision made by the passenger. So, you are prompted before your flight or you’re prompted with a suggestion for you to share your information, if you wish to, and then you can have access to fast track.”

Securing and maintaining passenger privacy is a core tenant of the app. Leger says the Travel Pass would be ineffective, losing passenger’s trust, if it didn’t put privacy first and ensure the sensitive information it relays stays secure.

“I think, it is very important for the passengers that we preserve the privacy of the passenger, because we don’t store the data. The data is always on your phone. And if you delete the app, the information is deleted on the phone. So, you have also the guarantee that the information, your personal information, is not going to be shared, unless you decide to do so with the government,” he says. “I don’t think an app like that would ever work if we didn’t respect the privacy of the passengers. And that’s a fundamental aspect of the solution.”

Trialing the Travel Pass

For an airline to utilize the IATA Travel Pass, they first need to trial it, which IATA invites them to do.

“There’s the soft aspect of the project and the more hard aspect of the project. The soft aspect of the project is, obviously, for the airlines to select a route where they are going to try out the application. And then they have to inform their staff first and then the passengers who are going to be part of the trial, for them to download the app and explain to them what’s the benefit and how it will work. And then, of course, their staff is aware, so that when the passenger is coming with the app, they know what to do with it and to ask the right questions. And for that, usually, it’s a three to four weeks trial,” explains Leger.

All Nippon Airways (ANA) was the first airline in Japan to trial the Travel Pass, beginning their journey with the app in March and conducting their trial at the end of May.

“We worked closely with IATA to determine the details of the trial. At the end of May, ANA successfully conducted a two-week trial on our Tokyo/Haneda–Honolulu and Tokyo/Haneda–New York/JFK routes,” says Miku Kaminogo, manager of Alliances & International Affairs at ANA. “The trial was in line with ANA’s goal to seek innovative digital solutions and help customers seamlessly and securely manage their international travel in order to meet the latest global COVID-19 health requirements.”

ANA is now currently in the process of evaluating the commercial and technical requirements for implementation. The airline is also in close communications with the Japanese authorities as government acceptance of IATA Travel Pass is a critical factor for implementation, says Kaminogo.

Japan Airlines (JAL) started their trial in June and finished at the end of August.

“Since earlier on in 2021, through learning the functions and the potential possibility this app could deliver to international travel, we decided to launch a trial period to understand the features and any operational adjustments necessary,” says Saori Utsunomiya, assistant manager digital CX strategy and innovation, JAL.

Utsunomiya adds that the small market of international air travel affected the number of participating customers.

“However, JAL gained 200 participants despite the circumstances,” Utsunomiya continues.

“Although there is room for improvement, we believe the trial has been successful overall with no critical issues. We have learned the amount of time consumed at the check-in counter to confirm the customer’s travel health requirements via IATA Travel Pass has drastically decreased compared to checking paper test certificates – from taking 3 minutes per customer to as fast as 10 seconds in average”

ANA officials say that with being the first airline to trial the Travel Pass in Japan, there was a good amount of interest around the app.

On May 11, ANA invited customers to participate in the trial. The trial was conducted on ANA’s Haneda-Honolulu and Haneda-New York/JFK routes from May 24 to June 6, with about 50 passengers registered for it.

“We believe the benefits of IATA Travel Pass include: allowing travelers to check the latest travel and health requirements of their destination and verify whether they meet them, providing a touchless and seamless experience, managing passenger data in a secure way, and reducing the risk of fraudulent COVID-19 test and vaccination certificates,” says Kaminogo.

Leger says that as part of the trial, IATA surveys the passengers to understand their views on the application. And IATA also surveys the staff of the airlines to get their feedback.

Then on the hard side of the process is giving the airlines the option to integrate the Travel Pass into their own app.

“So, the objective of what we have developed is not for IATA to make available the app. It’s more for the airlines to integrate the functionality of Travel Pass into their own app. Because if you travel with an airline, you want to use the app of the airline’s to do all of the functionalities that I’ve just described, be it the digital ID, or be it understanding the regulatory requirements, or even defining where you can be tested in a lab and collecting your information on the airline app to then do your check-in and to do your booking and to issue and to print your boarding pass,” Leger says.

Airlines also have the option of using the IATA Travel Pass app outside of their own app, if they choose not to integrate it.

ANA officials say the app addresses key pain points for passengers, helping them keep on top of the regularly changing COVID regulations around the world, and also takes some of the burden off of airlines who are responsible for ensuring passengers are compliant with these regulations.

“From the airline perspective, we are often responsible for ensuring that passengers comply with entry requirements. Yet, we have no way of verifying the authenticity of test and vaccine information presented by travelers. Furthermore, because it takes significant time to check each document, it will be extremely time consuming and resource intensive for check-in agents to verify every single passenger once travel demand picks up,” says Kaminogo.

“We think that a securely managed app such as IATA Travel Pass will help address the challenges mentioned above and contribute to the restart of travel.”

Utsunomiya says that JAL received similarly positive feedback from their passengers who chose to utilize the app.

“We have received positive responses such as: Since it is digitalized and stored in your own device it is impossible to lose compared to paper certificates, there is no need to revisit the clinic to receive paper certificate, check-in procedure became faster and smoother, being able to see the verification prior to departure provided peace of mind, the app functions without any internet once the personal data is registered,” Utsunomiya says.

Though, Utsunomiya also notes that there were some challenges with the app that the airline had to overcome. The limitation of healthcare institutions that were able to issue COVID-19 test results via IATA Travel Pass decreased the opportunities of customers who did not live nearby or if they had a preferred clinic not listed. In the future, the increase of healthcare institutions is expected which will make the app more reachable and practical for travelers.

“Also, since the IATA Travel Pass app is only delivered in English as of today, we had to take extra steps in creating Japanese instructions to make clear of how to use the app. We will hope for the IATA Travel Pass itself to cover multilanguage, or either consider a way to translate the app through system integration,” Utsunomiya adds.

The Biometric Boon

When the pandemic comes to an end, Leger says the Travel Pass will continue to live on as a contactless travel and biometric app.

“We always had in mind that if and when COVID would disappear, the application that you have downloaded, and that you are using to manage your digital identity, or to understand the regulatory requirements, will still be of use after the crisis. So, we have tried to build a product that is sustainable beyond the crisis. Of course, today the primary focus is making sure that the industry restarts and that people can understand the requirements, get their tests and certificate, and then use that to travel,” Leger says.

“But when these will disappear, hopefully in the next 18 to 24 months, the app might still be used for the contactless purpose or for additional services that we are thinking about right now.”

However, biometric technology and contactless travel has been an area where the United States has lagged compared to other areas. Hans Miller, co-founder of Airside, says, though, the pandemic has accelerated the acceptance and deployment of biometric technology and speculates that it will be adopted sooner than it would have without it.

“We think that what the industry calls ‘seamless travel’ is being greatly accelerated by the pandemic. Seamless travel is the idea of using facial recognition technology in place of presenting physical documentation at every touch point along your journey,” Miller says.

 “We think along with that, you’re going to see some interesting twists,” he continues. “It wouldn’t surprise me to see reservation systems pop up for going through security or visiting a certain destination, like Venice, Italy. This would enable a metered flow through choke points. We think that things like fast lanes where you’re pre-approved or pre-cleared, like TSA Pre-Check, will become even more important and popular to increase the flow of people and reduce crowding in lines.”

For example, Airside is currently partnered with American Airlines to provide a mobile ID verification service for bag check and lounge access.

“The trial was very successful. We’re thankful for our partners at American Airlines and Thales, who really are doing a phenomenal job. There are many, many other tests and pilots and prototypes being rolled out around the world using facial recognition to make travel faster and easier with less crowding and fewer lines,” Miller points out.

Miller says biometric identity technology is enabling seamless travel in airports like Dubai and Shanghai, but that the U.S. is not yet at the biometric tipping point.

“When everyone becomes more educated about biometrics and comfortable with how they can be used safely and securely, you’ll see them used interoperably everywhere, or at least at a critical mass number of locations, and that will be the tipping point. It’s similar to the way we got used to using mobile boarding passes. It will snowball very, very quickly,” Miller says.

He adds that one hurdle to creating seamless travel in the U.S. is solving for domestic security checkpoints and having the TSA evolve from checking physical IDs.

“We think TSA is on the cusp of being able to accept digital IDs. I’ll let them speak to that, but they’ve certainly been quite vocal that that’s their goal. We think that within the next 12 months, we’ll see a dramatic increase in the number of test and prototype sites. We expect to see a continued rollout of facial recognition for seamless travel at all access points, like bag check, check-in, TSA security and boarding, at pretty much every major airport in the U.S.,” Miller says.

In Japan, Utsunomiya says that JAL has already implemented their own biometric and seamless travel technology.

“The digital credential platforms, travel passes and vaccine certificates, are expected to play a role to realize a seamless and contactless travel. Japan Airlines has already introduced ‘Face Express’ — a seamless check-in process by using facial recognition system. In future, there is a possibility that digital credential platforms such as IATA Travel Pass, which has a feature to register each user’s facial data and passport data in everyone’s device, to be integrated to the seamless travel process,” Utsunomiya explains.

Utsunomiya adds that they see the future of travel becoming more and more digital in the wake of COVID-19.

“Digitalization of all travel requirements including COVID-19 test results, vaccine certificates will boost the efficiency of international travel. On the other hand, consideration for non-digital customers is mandatory to provide air travel in the post COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, the digital/paper formats should become globally standardized so that all travel industry stakeholders as well as each country’s government authorities are able to validate the requirements instantly for all customers,” Utsunomiya continues.

Miller says misconceptions about the technology remain in the U.S. Privacy remains the largest concern among passengers. But the way some of the technology is designed can help eliminate the concerns.

“When you’re talking about this type of program, an access program, a travel program, not criminal investigations, the biggest thing for people to know is that the actual image of their fingerprint or the actual image of their face doesn’t need to be stored centrally. What the technology is using for the most part are templates. The software will look at your biometric and pick certain reference points that are particularly useful, and then match it up with your face or your fingerprint when you present yourself the next time. It’s not something that somebody can go back and say, ‘this is definitely full prints for this person.’ At least, that’s not how we’ve built our technology at Airside,” Miller says.

Miller reiterates, however, that the pandemic has shown what the benefits of biometric technology are and says the pandemic has been a double-edged sword in that regard. On the one hand, it has shown the benefits of adopting the technology, while on the other it has caused operational hurdles that prevent the technology from being able to gain a foothold as the pandemic rages on.

“I think that the pandemic has really increased the level of interest in this because it’s touchless, it’s faster, there’s a lot of health benefits to go into a seamless travel digital ID future,” Miller says. “And you’ve seen that play out in things like other verticals, like telehealth.

“The pandemic has brought an operational hammer blow to airlines and airports and TSA, as they struggled to deal with the complete collapse of volume followed by the surge that’s come this summer,” Miller continues. “The pandemic has made it really clear what the benefits of seamless travel will be, and what we see is a lot of preparatory work going on across the industry right now with multiple airlines working to get their programs lined up. As day-to-day operations stabilize, we expect to see these new innovations and new initiatives start to become more prevalent in the public eye.”

Ultimately, to get international travel to return to its pre-pandemic levels, Leger says that biometric and seamless travel technology are a “must-have.”

“Clearly, it helps the passengers. It helps the airlines, the airport, as well as the governments. And we are doing that in a very safe environment, of course, to make sure that we comply with the regulatory requirements and respect the rules and make sure that there are no additional infections by only transporting people who have been tested or who have been vaccinated. And that’s the primary objective of what we’re trying to do here and to help the restart,” Leger says.

“The easing of travel restrictions by countries around the world will be the key to stimulating demand. The reopening of borders needs to be based on the epidemiological situation of each country,” Kaminogo adds.

“We believe IATA Travel Pass will play an important role not only in restarting international travel, but also in driving the future of contactless travel. In the future, we hope that travelers will be able to utilize IATA Travel Pass and biometric technology to proceed through airport checkpoints using their face as their passport and boarding pass.”