Travel without a passport, soon a reality?

The use of biometrics is becoming more widespread to enable smoother airport journeys. To get to the point of 100% dematerialized travel without a passport? We can believe it.

The slow dematerialization of customer records

Let’s start by reminding ourselves where we came from: in the early 2000s (yes, it’s been 20 years) paper was everywhere in the traveler’s journey. Airline ticket, boarding pass, and even a hotel voucher. And the “old-timers” will confirm that at the time very few people in the industry believed in the 100% dematerialized journey.

Lack of vision? Not really. Dematerialize the journey yes, but to replace paper with what? Let’s remember that the iPhone, which opened the way to a massive transformation of uses, only saw the light of day in 2007, and that in the meantime, mobile internet was neither affordable nor simple, and even less massively widespread.

In short, if today it seems obvious to us to travel without any other paper travel document than our passports, it took a long time to get there and it was anything but simple. The evidence: we are still often surprised that we cannot get an electronic boarding pass either because for administrative reasons such country of departure or destination, the particularities of a passenger or of a trip or I don’t know what impose to pass physically to a desk to withdraw one’ precious sesame or because the airline or the airport cannot do it because of their data-processing infrastructure or because such country does not authorize it.

With a few exceptions (not so marginal that it says), on the side of the airlines the job is globally done.

Airports, the last point of friction

If on the side of the travel industry the work is done, the airport remains a major point of friction in a dematerialized world. Not because it is technically ill-equipped but because the security and police procedures are what they are and they impose to show several times the same documents along the way and that it is today a major point of friction for the passenger but also a notable point of inefficiency as well for the airports, the authorities concerned and the airlines which mobilize resources and lose an inordinate amount of time to do what is nothing more or less than administrative control and document reconciliation.

Today, with the help of technology, the answer to this problem is quite obvious and is called biometrics. Once you know for sure that the person at the counter, in line, at the boarding gate is “so-and-so”, everything else follows.

Is she authorized to pass, to travel, does she have a ticket on this flight etc. etc. No more documents to show: we move forward as long as we are on the right track and we are ” at our place “. If not, a door does not open and the human intervenes to handle the situation. Some time ago, we already talked about the first biometric boarding experiments conducted jointly by airlines and airports.

The limits of such approaches? To date, they can only be restricted to a given scope (country of origin, destination, passenger nationality). Why ? Because for the system to work, it needs a passenger database, which does not exist today on a global scale. For example, the Lufthansa experiment was based on the US Customs and Border Protection database, which is certainly rich but far from exhaustive.

The mobile as the future of the passport?

An experiment is underway between Canada and the Netherlands, involving Air Canada and KLM. It is based on the Known Traveller Digital Identity (KTDI) project, launched by the World Economic Forum, which consists of storing passenger data not in the passport chip but in the passenger’s mobile!

Not only does it dispense with the need for a paper passport, but as the trip progresses, the data is enriched by the accumulation of certificates provided by trusted partners such as border agencies and recognized air carriers. This system, based on the blockchain, makes it possible to access a “known traveler” status by accumulating and cross-checking data from trusted organizations.

“Too well known” even in my opinion because at the time of the GDPR the approach is not without questions. And it remains, moreover, dependent on the mobile. What to do if you lose it? Are there any risks of hacking? Are there any risks of hacking?

“One ID”: Towards a worldwide passenger database?

Different approach from the Emirates.

Emirates will launch a similar pilot on selected flights between Dubai and Australia, following a successful first trial between London Gatwick and the Emirates.

Automated facial recognition would replace document checks everywhere from the check-in counter and passport control counters to duty-free stores, airport lounges and boarding queues, relying on “One ID.”

What is “One ID”. It is an initiative of the IATA (International Air Transport Association) aiming to build a global database of passengers instead of the totally fragmented system that prevails today.

According to Alexandre de Juniac, CEO of IATA, “One ID’s vision is a paperless travel experience where passengers can travel around the world safely and securely using only their individual biometric data. This will be achieved through a trusted digital identity, biometric recognition technology and a collaborative identity management platform accessible to authorized stakeholders.

The data collection would be done only once in a lifetime and would then allow to abstain from paper documents throughout the traveler’s journey.

Obviously it has the advantage over KTDI to be mobile-free but it is not without questions about the use of personal data.

According to Dubai Airport management: “Based on the previous trial of Emirates passengers travelling between Gatwick and Dubai, 82% of participants “had no problem sharing their data with a third party, provided there is a benefit to the customer.” And, not surprisingly, a large proportion of the passengers who welcomed the experiment and were happy to share the data requested of them were “premium passengers” – in business or first class – as well as regular travelers such as Emirates Skywards members at the highest statuses.

Of course…but we are talking about the passenger’s perception, not about the way we govern the data, prevent risks or even be ready to react in case of a security breach.

A story to follow

There is no doubt that we are moving towards a world where biometrics will allow us to be more and more paperless and this is something we are looking forward to from a passenger experience perspective.

But these subjects raise major questions about passengers’ personal data. We remember the outcry that accompanied the sharing of this data between governments for security reasons that can be considered relatively legitimate, we can’t imagine that this will be done without pain when the scope of the data and the stakeholders is extended, especially when private ones are involved in the project.

In short, a subject that will be discussed often in the future.

Photo : facial recognition by metamorworks via Shutterstock

Bertrand Duperrin
Bertrand Duperrin
Compulsive traveler, present in the French #avgeek community since the late 2000s and passionate about (long) travel since his youth, Bertrand Duperrin co-founded Travel Guys with Olivier Delestre in March 2015.

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