COVID-19 has upended global travel and brought the world to a standstill.
For the first time in history, close to 90% of the world’s population now lives in countries with travel restrictions. Airlines, travel companies and the tourism sector as a whole are among the most affected businesses. An estimated 25 million aviation jobs and 100 million travel and tourism jobs are at risk. Between five and seven years’ worth of industry growth will potentially be lost.
Air passenger volume as measured in revenue passenger kilometres (RPKs). Passenger demand has fallen at an unprecedented rate. (Image: IATA)
We will travel again, but it will not be the same. Even if borders reopen, travellers must trust that boarding a plane is safe and that they will be able to enter the destination country. New health safety protocols and systems will need to be in place, and these have yet to be defined. As governments and industry plan for recovery in this new context and adapt to changing traveller behaviour, the use of digital identity and biometrics technologies could restore trust while also ensuring a seamless journey. However, these tools will only be effective if users feel that their data is protected. Privacy, consent and transparent data governance must be at the heart of any technical solution.
Here are two key areas of transformation in which digital technologies will shape the future of travel.
The most immediate and perhaps most visible change will be a shift to touchless travel from airport curbside to hotel check-in. Even with strict cleaning protocols in place, exchanging travel documents and touching surfaces through check-in, security, border control, and boarding still represent a significant risk of infection for both travellers and staff.
Automation across the entire sector will become the new norm. Biometrics are already a widely accepted solution for identity verification, and their use will become more widespread as physical fingerprint and hand scanners are phased out. More touchless options will come into play including contactless fingerprint, as well as iris and face recognition. Moreover, technology for touchless data-entry such as gesture control, touchless document scanning and voice commands are already being tested. Care must be taken to ensure these technologies are inclusive and to eliminate the risk of potential biases.
Digital health passports
From now on, health could be embedded in every aspect of travel. According to a survey by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), measures such as visible sanitizing, screening and masks all increase passengers’ feelings of safety when thinking about travelling after COVID-19.
To date, there is no standard or agreement on the acceptable level of risk for reopening borders or allowing individuals to travel. Until a vaccine is developed, the focus is shifting to assessing the risk of individual passengers. With the passenger’s consent, travel companies and airlines could use personal data such as their age, underlying health conditions and travel history to compile an individual risk profile.
Efforts to develop health protocols and standards using digital technology for the travel and tourism industry are still in their initial stages. In the meantime, airlines such as Emirates are conducting on-site COVID-19 testing for passengers. European airports have begun drawing up industry guidelines for passenger health screening. While not new, the use of thermal cameras at airports is becoming more widespread. A number of symptom-tracking and contact-tracing apps now exist in many countries. Apple and Google are close to finalizing a contact-tracing software scheme for developers to build compatible apps.
New health-screening and tracking tools offer hope of a return to relaxed and confident travel. However, they have also brought privacy and data issues to the forefront of the discussion. Any solutions need to be transparent and secure if travellers are to embrace them. Data should be shared on an ‘authorized to know’ and ‘need to know’ basis, with informed consent and in line with applicable regulations.
The digital traveller
Many organisations are already well advanced in their digital journey. This must be accelerated to enable the new normal, help businesses to adapt to changed consumer behaviour and rebuild trust. Integrated digital identity solutions are key to realising touchless travel. They also allow organizations to draw on multiple data points to efficiently assess a person’s risk profile, enabling them to manage risks in real time.
The World Economic Forum’s Known Traveller Digital Identity initiative is an example of such an approach. This initiative brings together a global consortium of individuals, governments, authorities and the travel industry to facilitate safe and seamless journeys. Consortium partners can access verifiable claims of a traveller’s identity data to improve passenger processing and reduce risk. Travellers can manage their own profile, collect digital ‘attestations’ of their identity data and decide which information to share.
In a COVID-19 context, a traveller would be able to securely obtain and store trusted, verifiable health credentials such as immunizations or their health status in their digital identity wallets. This would be combined with other trusted, verifiable identity data from public or private entities.
Testing and health screening at airports is difficult to achieve at scale. Under schemes like Known Traveller Digital Identity, travellers would be able to consent to sharing their identity and health data in advance of the journey, allowing border officials to conduct any required risk assessments in advance of the journey while avoiding queuing and bottlenecks at airports.
Collaboration is key
In this time of unprecedented change, governments and industry have a unique opportunity to redefine travel and build a more sustainable, agile, and resilient industry. This will not be possible without collaboration.
In the near term, stakeholders will need to cooperate to accelerate the use of digital technologies. Next, they will need to develop a cohesive policy and legal regime around the deployment of digital technologies that balance the protection of civil liberties and public health. The third challenge is to ensure that different digital identity solutions can operate together. The role of organizations such as the World Health Organization, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) will be critical to align health and aviation priorities, guidelines and policies.
Paper passports are still required as the main form of identity for travellers. In a contactless world, the adoption of standardized digital travel credentials and initiatives like IATA’s ONE ID concept, which promote the use of biometrics for a smoother journey, must be accelerated and adapted to this new context.
Ultimately, the pandemic is likely to speed up two trends that have been gathering steam for some time. One is seamless travel, where your face and body are your passport. The other is the idea of a decentralized identity. This means the individual is in possession of and controls their identity attributes, such as their date and place of birth and physical characteristics, but also travel history, health information and other data. Combined, these trends will ensure travel is enjoyable, efficient and safe.