by Andy Smith Director, Global Government & Industry Relations, SITA
Borders have rarely been under as much scrutiny or pressure as they have experienced during the Covid pandemic. In an incredibly short time at the beginning of 2020, nations went from observing the spread of a respiratory disease in China, to responding to a pandemic and shutting down their borders to all but returning residents and nationals. Alongside these closures, nations needed information on those intending to travel to their borders that had never been requested before; health information, medical test results and history, travel records, and information on family members, even those not traveling.
SITA has been providing Border Management systems for 25 years, and many of the 60+ governments we work with asked us to help them with both these needs. We were able to adjust our Advance Passenger Processing (APP) interactive API solution to help nations deny boarding to all but residents and citizens, or those from countries (or even airports) that the nation deemed high risk. Similarly, we took our experience of building and running the first Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) system, to develop a Health ETA that acted as a combined Declaration, Attestation and Passenger Locator Form (PLF) solution. This web-based solution also includes risk analysis and case management to allow nations to issue approvals to travel.
Both these solutions help nations protect their citizens and get valuable information on travelers. At the same time, there was a surge in apps and technology solutions to create Digital Wallets to capture a travelers Covid test results. What was evident very quickly, however, was that these apps rarely took into account existing airport, airline, and especially border processes, procedures, and capabilities. This meant that there was an expectation that to process travelers, airline and airport staff would have to download apps and scan QR codes for each and every passenger. A clearly unworkable approach if we wanted to get back to anywhere near normal levels of operation. Indeed, airports were telling us that to process just 10-15% of normal traffic, they needed 100% of staffing levels.
The situation for Border Control was perhaps even worse. As there was no integration between the health status of travelers and existing border automation systems, these had to be shut down and all passengers directed to manual processing. Without time-consuming, direct discussion with travelers, it is impossible for border officers to know which flight someone was on, where they were coming from and which (if any) health pass scheme they used. How could these officers verify the authenticity of a screen on a phone, or a barcode or even worse a bit of paper perhaps in another language? For this reason, officers had to resort to skilled questioning causing huge queues in immigration halls and even requiring aircraft to be diverted to airports with less congested arrivals.
It should also be noted that in response to the Covid pandemic, we were trying to connect two complex and highly regulated industries: healthcare and testing laboratories, and travel and transportation. Each had their own rules, regulations, and formats pertaining to personal data, sharing, and privacy – and there were little similarity or mapping between them. The most obvious of these was related to identity verification and binding. For example, some test labs use name and insurance policy details as identity verifiers – not information that is particularly useful to international travel, which relies on government issued passports or ID cards.
The industry is looking at how these issues can be resolved. It is very positive to see how well technology providers, carriers, port authorities, and integrators have come together to work on collaborative solutions. Much of the initial work was on how to get test results to airlines – mainly utilizing health pass apps, such as those from IATA, AOK or The Commons Project. These apps also acted as the decision-making engine by assessing the validity of the test against the Covid rules imposed by the relevant government authorities, generating an “OK/NOT OK” result. There have been some very successful tests of these apps and they have gone some way to demonstrate to the authorities that health status information can be safely and securely processed electronically. However, this is only one part of the challenges facing the industry to get us back operating at any level of volume.
Perhaps the most obvious challenge is that it is virtually certain that there won’t be a single app for the industry. Airlines, alliances, and countries may have preferred solutions, but they as well as airports and government authorities, will have to work with a vast variety of apps, and of course paper-based information. There has been work to try and align the apps with standard, interoperable underlying technology. However, even when this works, there remains the issue that personnel have to intervene in the travellers journey to scan the app or QR code to verify the results and give the go ahead to move to the next step in the process. This intervention is happening at least twice – at check in and immigration – and potentially several additional times too, with significant time and cost penalties for all stakeholders. Clearly, we cannot operate these additional, non-aligned checks if we are to return to sustainable volumes of passengers, but just as clearly, we need to maintain the integrity of the borders.
While some airline system providers can integrate multiple pass schemes into their systems, this only applies to their airline customers. Similarly, this does not allow for easy integration with declarations required by governments or with passenger processing automation in airports.
For this reason, SITA is working with pass scheme providers and other stakeholders to develop the Health Protect ecosystem, connecting our own solutions, such as the declaration capabilities of Health ETA, in airport Passenger Processing and denial of boarding or check in with APP Protect, with third parties. Importantly, Health Protect integrates with the existing airline, airport, and government process, allowing the health status checks to be carried out simultaneously and as invisibly as possible. At the heart of this is the Health Hub, a gateway that allows travelers to share health information either from the declaration system or from scheme providers, and for this to be securely shared at the right time to the right stakeholder.
This will allow governments to more easily combine data from declaration or passenger locator forms with health pass or self-entered information, in a machine readable way. This will allow existing automation, such as immigration eGates to be reactivated and significantly reduce the delays of five or six hours seen at some ports. Similarly, we can rely on outbound automation to ensure checks are effective, timely, and part of the processes that have been safely and securely checking travelers for years.
The industry is coming together to restore confidence in travel. Hopefully, authorities will join this journey.