Business or leisure. Sunny beaches or snow-capped mountains. Short-hop or long-haul. Regardless of the destination or purpose for international travel, there is invariably one item at the top of the packing list. Your passport. As biometric adoption continues to grow in airports around the globe, will this essential piece of personal property ever be consigned to history?
A brief history to passing through ports
While the original purpose and gradual evolution of travel documentation is somewhat up for debate, the booklet-style passport we recognise today has remained largely untouched for more than a century. Barring some additional security features, the odd colour change (in the UK, at least) and the 2007 introduction of RFID chips, countries have tended to stick to international norms.
While border restrictions, vaccination requirements and testing obligations have somewhat muddied the waters regarding international travel over the past few years, the need to present a passport at various points in the journey has remained unchanged.
The end goal of biometric adoption
Valour Consultancy’s 2021 study on The Seamless Passenger Journey through Smart Airports found the installed base of self-boarding eGates rose by 17.1% in 2020. This growth is anticipated to continue because they yield operational efficiency gains for airports and airlines alike. Importantly, they are also largely welcomed by passengers who wish to board aircraft more quickly.
Anecdotal success stories supporting the implementation of biometric boarding are not hard to find. For example, seamless facial recognition allows more than 400 passengers to board an Airbus A380 in less than 20 minutes.
For many airlines, turntime is the golden metric of operational performance. And of course, it is very much an arena of marginal gains. In previous blogs, we have estimated some of the considerable cost savings which could be achieved by small improvements in boarding durations. But, from a passenger perspective, where do the benefits lie? While contributing to on-time performance – or moreover arriving at their destination on time – is important, surely the opportunity to leave their passport at home, and all the stresses associated with misplacing it, would be a welcome addition?
All this sounds good in theory, but how close are we to seeing this in reality?
A semi-seamless experience
On a recent transatlantic business trip, one of the Valour team transited through two of the largest, and most progressive, airports in the world. ACI recently crowned Dallas Fort Worth (DFW) as the second busiest hub in the world, by passenger volume and number of flights, only behind Atlanta. London Heathrow, the destination for this journey, would regularly feature in the global top 10 pre-Covid, and remains on top of most European rankings.
So, one would think, this route is an ideal platform to showcase how far the airport sector has come in achieving seamless travel. In some ways, it succeeded. At the boarding gate, a camera with biometric functionality negated the need for a boarding pass. However, cabin crew at the entrance to the aircraft still left passengers fumbling to find it when querying their seat number to direct them to the correct aisle.
It was a similar story for passports. While not required for boarding, gate staff made a number of announcements stressing the need for passengers to hold their passport while queuing to board. Presumably this was to verify nobody would end up in London – or their final destination – without the document needed to clear immigration. Being asked to hold a passport, but not open it, scan it, or show it, is a concept quite alien to even the most frequent of flyers. This caused confusion and certainly took away from the efficiency benefits discussed above. More smooth than usual perhaps, but a seamless experience? Not quite.
New initiatives ‘more a hindrance’ than a help?
Regulatory frameworks, such as the new European Union Entry and Exit System (EES), are anticipated to accelerate the adoption of biometric technologies. However, operational and logistical problems have so far delayed the launch date with the latest estimates for mandatory implantation citing mid-2023.
A recent blog from ETIAS explains: “While the main purpose of the Entry/Exit System is to monitor the movements of “third country” nationals (citizens from outside the European Union) it is also supposed to make travel easier and more efficient for visitors to Europe. However, with no coordinated system in place (as yet) the EES could prove to be more a hindrance than a help for both travelers and border authorities.”
We have previously discussed the importance, and difficulties, of calculating return on investment from smart touchpoint installations. For long-term success, the intangible and tangible benefits associated with improved passenger experience and faster throughputs must all be underpinned by consistency. This is not unique to aviation, but an integral component for all organisations seeking to protect and enhance their brand value.
Consistent customer journeys are a key driver of satisfaction and loyalty, but with vast regional differences in budgets and rates of technological developments, how realistic is this for airports to achieve? We have recently observed the confusion brought by differing mask policies, with implementation now dependent on a flight’s destination. Even where most factors relating to airline and airport size are consistent – such as the Dallas-London trip cited above, there are still experiential gaps to bridge. The return leg featured a more traditional boarding experience, complete with passport check and boarding pass scans at the departure gate. When it comes to seamless travel initiatives, airports must work with airlines and route partners to build familiarity for passengers in their end-to-end journeys.
The ongoing case for the passport
We forecast biometrically enabled touchpoints to increase 4-fold by the end of the decade, but even once greater airport adoption is reached, network inconsistencies will still exist. It is conceivable that many routes between larger international hubs will possess the technology required to remove passport checks entirely. But what about when things don’t go to plan?
Currently, if the biometric system doesn’t find a match, the passenger is prompted to see an agent who conducts a manual check of the passenger’s passport and boarding pass. Furthermore, while flight diversions are rare (Statista reported 0.2% of total US carrier operations were diverted in 2017), they cannot be ignored.
Technical issues, weather and another unforeseen emergencies mean it is conceivable for travelers to end up in a different country, or certainly an airport with less sophisticated technologies, than expected. It is likely that policies, and passengers, will continue to err on the side of caution. Passports can also serve additional purposes such as housing visas, permits and immigration stamps.
While we expect efficiency improvements to continue at an accelerating rate, an era of document-free travel is still a long way from reality. We are therefore likely to see a gradual transition from compulsory to optional – similar to many domestic routes – before a blanket removal. We also expect progressive airports to implement different requirements for different destinations, at least in the medium term.
In the future, there may be a need to differentiate between a ‘physical’ passport and a digital replica stored on a device. The latter may solve some of the issues raised here, where a virtual document is presented to generate a travel token and/or respond to any manual checks required. That said, Digital Travel Credentials (DTCs) come in three varieties and the version which could obviate the need for a physical passport is generally viewed as being beyond the ten-year horizon in terms of implementation.
Emerging immigration technologies, new programmes and policies will be explored further in Valour Consultancy’s upcoming report titled “Smart Borders – Land, Air & Sea”. To keep up with our latest analysis of the airports sector, subscribe to our monthly email research updates.