Comment: The travel industry’s digital transformation should be celebrated

The travel industry’s digital transformation continues to accelerate unabated, a process sped up by the pandemic. The International Civil Aviation Organisation’s (ICAO) Digital Travel Credential (DTC) is one of the driving forces for universal and interoperable solutions for digital identities. It brings secure and seamless journeys across the world, enabled by mobile and biometric technologies.

Digital identities mean we will be able to travel from anywhere to everywhere – by air, land, or sea – without needing to show our physical travel documents – neither a passport, visa, health form, boarding pass, or driving licence. They will be the passkey for unlocking every stage of the journey, from the earliest intention to travel, all the way to destination activities and the return journey.

Unstoppable momentum

The momentum is unstoppable, as digital travel – harnessing digital identities – begins making its move towards the mainstream. This is great news for everyone. Digital travel is essential for the travel industry to tackle the trends and challenges it faces, such as the phenomenal growth in traveller numbers, reliance on physical documents, staff shortages, rising expectations for ‘joined up’ intermodal journeys, government austerity, and more.

The advantages are well recognised. Passengers get secure and stress-free travel, with the ability to complete processes securely off-airport, meaning fewer queues; and the industry gets pre-cleared, ‘ready-to-go’ travellers with faster approvals and risk assessment before departure. The resulting major efficiencies will not only deliver new levels of seamless and secure travel but will also significantly relieve the pressures on travel industry infrastructure, resources, and costs, while encouraging the economic benefits of travel and tourism.

Passenger positivity

We know that passengers are eager to embrace digital journeys. Sita’s Passenger IT Insights 2022 survey spotlights two stages of the journey seeing the biggest increases in positive passenger emotions since 2016: identity control (up 11%) and bag collection (up by 9%). Both have witnessed the greatest rise in tech adoption over the last five years or so. The survey also shows that passengers average 7.3 out of 10 for comfort levels with biometric identification across the journey, where 10 is the most comfortable.

IATA’s Global Passenger Survey echoes Sita’s findings. Over 80% of passengers would share their immigration information to speed up the airport arrival process; 66% want to obtain a visa online prior to travel; and as many as three quarters want to use biometric data instead of passports and boarding passes.

Pioneering digital travel

The advance of digital travel is inexorable, with digital identity at the helm. At Sita, it remains a critical area of our strategic focus. We currently provide the next-generation of self-service technology infrastructure on which digital identities rely – with integrated data-driven, mobile, and biometrically-enabled self-service touchpoints for check-in, bag-drop, border control, boarding and more.

Our digital border solutions enable digital travel at the border for over 70 governments and all G20 nations, while our passenger processing solutions offer biometric and mobile-driven digital journey experiences for travellers, which can be untethered from fixed points in the airport.

A community approach is essential

But clearly there is much work to be done before digital travel becomes a universal reality. As we develop and innovate in this crucial area, we recognise the necessity for our industry to adopt a community approach. We need to evolve to a universal digital identity for travel, not parochial or standalone initiatives for one airport or transport operator, covering just a single journey.

All of us in the travel industry must ensure that digital identities become reusable for travellers, for every trip, across all the world’s airports, cruise hubs, railway stations and more. This is especially important as we see the rise of intermodal services, such as in the Netherlands (KLM’s AirTravel), and in France (the ‘Train + Air’ service offered by Sita customer SNCF Voyageurs).

Sita stands together with industry bodies such as ICAO, IATA and ACI, in advocating for global standards and initiatives, like ICAO’s DTC. We are honoured to play our part in the development of the Safe & Seamless Traveler Journey (SSTJ) initiative of the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC).

It is vital to work collaboratively with airlines, airports, border agencies, industry bodies and other partners across the world. It is why we continue to undertake collaborative trials and Proofs-of-Concept (PoCs) with customers, to evolve digital passenger processing and border solutions for the future. And it is why we continue to identify partners and potential points of contact to advance the digital cause for the travel industry.

Putting theory into practice in Aruba

Sita has a number of initiatives underway. One is our digital travel work with the Government of Aruba and tech partner, which has piloted the preclearance of travellers visiting the island using a mobile app and a secure Sita Trust Network. With a verified, durable, and privacy-preserving digital identity on their mobile devices, travellers enjoy fast-tracking entry at Aruba’s airport, as well as access to many of the island’s participating venues, such as restaurants, shops, and clubs.

Sita’s work with Aruba will be expanding to include ICAO’s DTC, thus enabling airport authorities, airlines, and the Government to give travellers the ability to securely share their biometric and biographic information to automate their journey. Biometric boarding and eGates at immigration entry/exit, mean that travellers can keep their passport in their pocket during the journey for easier facilitation at several pain points during the trip.

This is an exciting initiative, emphasising the criticality of bringing industry stakeholders together. And again, that is precisely the point: if our industry is going to deliver the benefits of global digital travel everywhere and anywhere, with interoperability and universality at its core, then it must do so as a collaborative community.

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