Last updated: 20 March 2022
Connecting passengers to the travel ecosystem
Electronic Visa Authorisation systems, cloud-based passports, secure credentials on mobile phones, digital identities, and biometrics can simplify international travel by eliminating the need to carry a physical passport or obtain paper-based visas.
They speed up border crossing, streamline the traveller experience and shape the future of travel.
The good news for travellers is that the digital transformation is already taking place.
However, security, privacy, and global governance are vital concerns.
This article will detail the latest initiatives and trends shaping the future travel experience.
Let's dig in.
Australia, a pioneer in pre-travel authorisation
This country and continent is very much a pioneer for borders.
With border management, the aim is deceptively simple: to make travellers' lives easier without reducing – and even possibly increasing – the level of checks they are subjected to.
This idea is simple.
The Electronic Travel Authority System (ETAS) concept – used to gain pre-travel authorisation – was invented for the Sydney Olympic Games way back in 2000.
The system has proved a great success in the ever-changing environment of post-9/11 arrangements, creating a "pseudo-visa" for visa-exempt travellers.
The Americans with ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) and Canadians with ETa (Electronic Travel Authorization) followed suit.
With its ETIAS (European Travel Information and Authorisation System) project for non-EU countries, it's now Europe's turn.
ETIAS: The future of travel in the EU
Given the relationships of trust between Europe and its partners, many countries – more than 60 – are exempt from visa requirements.
The absence of visas does, however, create a certain degree of risk, given the need of Member States to anticipate potential threats and associated malevolent acts.
The Australians found the right solution many years ago with their famous ETAS.
Inexpensive (just a few dollars) and relatively easy to implement, the system has become an essential weapon in the post-9/11 arsenal.
Americans and Canadians have followed the example of Australians.
ETIAS is a particularly effective measure applying to all modes of transport and not just air travel, which is already burdened by a plethora of preventive measures (API, PNR, SIS, VIS, etc.).
What is ETIAS? How does it work?
So ETIAS is the European response to the American ESTA.
The system is ambitious as it will require centralising the approval of 28 – soon to be 27 – Member States. It is expected to be in place by the end of 2022.
An ETIAS visa will cost 7 euros for a validity of 3 years. Much cheaper than ESTA, at $14 (May 2020).
In April 2020, the European Commission stated that, by late 2022, UK citizens could travel visa-free in the EU and will need an ETIAS and pay a fee.
Requests are processed automatically by national databases and then by the EU to identify the reasons for any refusals.
- In the absence of a negative response ("hit"), authorisation is issued in a very short time.
- If refused, the competent authorities conduct a manual assessment.
The procedure will allow all carriers crossing international borders by
to check whether third-country nationals hold the valid authorisation required.
The processing procedure makes an ETIAS different from a regular visa.
ETIAS requests are automated and centralised, whereas visas are granted on a case-by-case basis by the Member States' authorities.
- Read more on ETIAS: In 2023, Americans will need to register to travel to Europe (Forbes - February 2022)
ETIAS is one component in a battery of infrastructure (EES or Entry/Exit System in particular) deployed by the EU by 2022-2023 to prevent potential threats long before borders are crossed.
The aim is to accelerate, facilitate, strengthen, and modernise control procedures by offering better protection against document and identity fraud.
By granting authorisation before travel, entry refusals are considerably reduced.
The system offers numerous advantages in border management: detecting malevolent acts and preventing irregular migration, but above all, reducing waiting times by identifying people likely to present a risk before they arrive.
Therefore, the idea is to prevent threats within EU borders and deal simply with the problem before it even exists.
The future: travelling without a passport
Passports were invented in 1920 when the League of Nations promoted the idea of a worldwide passport standard. Most passports being issued now integrate a chip (electronic passport).
But in essence, we still need to carry one to cross borders.
Here is a new idea coming from Australia again.
The virtual passport is part of the Australian philosophy of facilitating checks and controls and raising the bar!
The concept was introduced in 2015.
Under this arrangement, the border becomes paperless, and flights are considered to be "domestic."
International airports will become a thing of the past! Passports disappear, and with them, the risk of loss or theft. Through facial recognition, the least invasive technology for camera-run checks, travellers are authenticated through facial recognition.
Once the system was up and running, the Australians expanded it to "frequent travellers" for "contactless" checks and controls on departure and arrival of international flights.
A pioneer of the "Smart Gate" concept more than ten years ago, Australia is making great strides towards virtual identity to automate formalities for 90% of the country's 50 million visitors by 2020, without human intervention or even scanning passports.
It has allocated a budget of AUS$90 million over five years for its "Seamless Traveler" programme using identification data stored in the clouds!
The passport-less project is part of a technological revolution in which the fundamental functions of life are increasingly replaced with new, virtual counterparts: identity, currency, signatures, transactions, etc.
The process appears to be unavoidable but will require a change in attitudes.
Australia indeed benefits from important features – an 'island' location, relatively few visitors, and most of them accessing the country by air – to justify these technological leaps.
Nowhere else is in the same situation, but new smartphone-based programmes target the same objective.
Your smartphone is your passport.
The Australian concept of virtual identity is not as revolutionary as it might first appear, given the general trend towards digital transformation.
While the cloud may represent the culmination of this process, the smartphone is often a prerequisite for it and key for the future of travel.
A technological marvel being enhanced with new apps every day, your phone incorporates the two vital components of border checks and controls – identity and biometrics – and therefore embodies eGate in a nutshell.
The favoured target of malevolent acts, airports also take the lead in innovation.
For example, Dubai now offers the "Smart UAE Wallet," allowing residents and nationals to use their smartphones as passports. Introduced in collaboration with the Emirates airline, the system will be gradually expanded.
The "Wallet" also allows the storage of multiple government documents for administrative procedures.
Despite their mistrust of electronic devices, the Americans have also launched their flagship project because the devices could contain explosives.
Developed by the company Airside in collaboration with the ACI (Airports Council International), a mobile app can send API data to border guards, thus avoiding queues.
Mobile phones redefine identification.
Increasingly connected through their smartphones, modern globetrotters have trouble dealing with the harsh realities of the physical world.
Carrying proof of identity, risking losing it, or getting it stolen seems laughable for those used to managing transactions worth millions over the Internet.
Electronic chips offer excellent capabilities. Businesses are working hard on identity programmes and mobile apps: for example, border crossings, driving licenses (as mobile driver's licenses in certain American states), access checks for industrial sites or university exams, and fraud prevention.
Biometrics and mobile phones
Users either produce their identity stored on the chip – and that can be enough – or identify themselves through iris, facial, or fingerprint biometrics.
Telephones combined with biometrics, therefore, offer a robust and low-cost solution.
The Old World is generally reticent to make this leap, mainly because of privacy legislation and concerns about biometrics. However, mobile data can be signed using state certificates, like passports and identity cards, while offering a better security level.
There is every likelihood that developing areas – Africa, Asia, UAE – will become mobile pioneers in this area.
Standardisation supports the trend.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has already seen the potential of electronic identity and introduced its LDS2 (Logical Data Structure 2) specifications; the aim is to store paperless visas and travel data in new-generation chips.
In 2016, the ICAO New Technologies Working Group created a "Digital Data" entity to work on standards. The authorities responsible for data protection supervise these programmes in compliance with EU directive 2016/679 on General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
- For a deeper view of the GDPR and biometric data, please visit our web dossier: Biometric data and privacy: what the law says.
Future outlook: your passport in the cloud
Modern passports incorporate chips with biometric data to authenticate the holder. The smartphone represents a significant but not revolutionary technological leap.
Digital transformation to the cloud has been a logical outcome since 9/11. Travellers will no longer carry their identity in their luggage; however, the cloud will require a centralised data register.
And there's the rub, given the extreme reluctance of legislators regarding the mass storage of data.
Once access to the cloud is locked, border guards can download API data through a passenger's simple biometric authentication.
Governments are aware of this; however, data storage – regardless of the level of cloud security – still represents a challenge in terms of "modus operandi."
Your face is your ID: the Single Token concept of IATA.
Airline companies and airports are aware of the challenges around virtual identity. Several significant experiments have been conducted from Aruba to Dubai – SITA with its Smart Path concept and Thales using the "Fly to Gate" procedure.
Biometrics act as the stock point of reference for different checks at the airport:
- baggage drop (smart luggage),
- security check,
- border control,
- boarding, etc.
Our traveller smiles at the camera as soon as they arrive, and all doors magically open: they no longer require a passport or boarding card and are recognised!
IATA, the trade association of airline companies, is now proposing to reuse this virtual identity for all travel.
Introduced by IATA at its World Passenger Symposium in 2016 and taken up by SITA, the airport infrastructure giant, the Single Token or one ID concept is consistent with the Australian philosophy of virtual identity: facial biometrics enrollment at the baggage drop and production of a token for all interactions with the airport (security, border control, boarding, etc.).
The logical next step is the temptation of a Mobile Token stored on a smartphone that can be reused anywhere in the world, for example, to access airport lounges and, why not, pay for duty-free purchases.
However, this procedure has a weakness: enrollment by an airport operator rather than a state authority is not as strong as a government-issued ID.
The challenge of travel and identity
The need for increased security following attacks in Europe and the United States, combined with a constant rise in airport passenger traffic, will require faster and simpler passenger control procedures.
Recent estimates from the World Economic Forum suggest that international travel will increase by 50% over the next ten years, bringing the number of arrivals to 1.8 billion by 2030.
These forecasts must be taken with a grain of salt because they were done before the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
- See IATA's impact assessment on travel dated 14 April 2020.
- Read the latest ICAO report on Covid-19 and civil aviation of 8 March 2022.
Sounds challenging? It is.
According to experts, in the long run, the economic equation between increasing passenger numbers and security measures that would not compromise and possibly improve passenger experience will likely become unsolvable if significant changes are not introduced.
Improvement of passenger experience and optimisation of passenger flows would require increased sharing of passenger-related information:
- biometric data,
- plane tickets,
- visas and previous travel records,
and if possible, doing so ahead of time to allow the use of early checking and control procedures.
Today, this information is held by various public and private stakeholders (airports, airline companies, border police, etc.), and its exchange requires collaboration between both governments and many institutions.
Blockchain and digital identity
A blockchain-based data-sharing system could be an exciting approach to this issue.
Blockchain technology would remove the need for a centralised database, with each node storing information and confirming its integrity from a transnational perspective.
Two types of model are possible:
- In the first model, data would be recorded directly in the blockchain. The information could then be accessed at any state or border crossing control point. This model could be completed by a mobile application through which the user could consent to data sharing.
- In the second model, more like the self-sovereign identity concept, the passenger's data would be stored in a personal device, such as their mobile phone. The blockchain would then only keep the certificates and proof of the validity of such information.
These technologies present real opportunities and require prior collaboration with the different stakeholders involved.
The standards and an appropriate governance model for this ecosystem are significant challenges.
Another issue is the business model's choice likely to attract and convince the various stakeholders to join the system. Indeed, this model can only succeed if it unites many stakeholders from within the ecosystem.
To go even further
Digital identity is a real challenge for governments.
Businesses such as Thales are here to help them through this digital transition while ensuring continuity of existing systems and the durability of processes used to verify and allocate identity and enrol users in specific programmes.
This digital transformation can only be achieved safely and securely using a range of biometric equipment, from enrollment to authentication. Thales already offers such devices and deploys them for numerous clients worldwide.
If you would like to discuss these issues further, please do not hesitate to contact us.
More resources on the traveller experience
- Learn more about biometrics and how it's transforming the "passenger experience."
- Discover why it's time to set up an eVisa portal
- Read the 2018 World Economic Forum white paper on The Known Traveller Digital identity.
- From IATA, the One ID concept paper (2018)