Digital passengers: the revolution will be incremental

+ The key to creating seamless travel experiences lies in existing areas with shared security and immigration standards, and where the main participants – airlines, regulators, airports – are already committed to sharing data. Once the new paradigm is experienced it will surely create broader momentum in the market.

For some years digital technology has promised big changes for airports. More efficient passenger processes, real-time flight information, faster boarding and security checks. The early achievements of this digital revolution are familiar: digital e-passport holders often get through customs in less time, and flyers with TSA Pre® and Global Entry can for example travel between London and Atlanta without all the usual bureaucracy. But these remain exceptions, and the more typical airport/digital technology experience is people playing Candy Crush while they wait in yet another queue. So what’s the hold up?

While the promise of technology is proven in theory, the reality is that airports and aviation are made-up of a complex fabric of stakeholders and interests. Airlines have different commercial agendas to airport owners. Regulators and security professionals have their own perspectives on how things might be ‘improved’. Data is being created all over the system but not shared in ways that transform the experience for the humble passenger. Above all, air travel is an international network business and there is great variability in airline, airport and border control service levels and the use of technology.

There is also a patchwork of different international regulatory agencies to consider. Systemic change will require that there is consensus on change, but who should lead? International agencies such as the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and industry organizations such as the Airports Council International (ACI) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) can promote and facilitate, but it will be a challenge.

Going seamless

So how can the industry move forward? I believe the key is to create seamless travel experiences in areas with shared security and immigration standards, and where the main participants – airlines, regulators, airports – are already committed to sharing data. Once the new paradigm is experienced it will surely create broader momentum in the market.

Airlines and airports could also initiate seamless travel initiatives across their major city-pair routes. By engaging with security, customs and immigration regulators at either end to support pre-clearance initiatives they can start to define this new air travel experience.  

‘Trusted traveller’ programmes, such as U.S. Global Entry, the APEC Business Travel Card, Mexico’s Viajero Confiable or Aruba’s “Happy Flow,” should be extended. Even if this is only a minority of the present market, it will demonstrate the possibility and also removes those travellers from the business-as-usual queues. 

We need to set up working groups consisting of airports, airlines, industry associations and regulators to map the traveller process, identify its regulatory checkpoints, chart its data flows, and use digital technology to establish the necessary clearance processes. This will be the first real definition of seamless air travel.

As with every hyped ‘digital revolution’ the key is to stay agile, launch a ‘beta’ version and make sure cynicism doesn’t take over while we overcome the hurdles. To this end there’s no shame in taking an incremental approach to achieving a grand vision. If we can make seamless travel happen somewhere, we can prove it should happen everywhere. I believe the time to start pushing forward is now.