Vancouver Airport Authority (YVR) has a long and proud history of following trends and attempting to keep up with new technology. In 1996, it was the first North American airport to implement common use terminal equipment for airlines, but come 2008, attention began to turn to border clearance.
As at many other airports, YVR's passengers were experiencing long waiting times when they arrived at the international customs point. At peak times, this could mean waiting up to three hours to clear the border. One option to solve this problem was to expand the customs hall but, noticing a growing desire for more technology-driven travel, YVR opted for an alternative route.
"We thought we would analyse passengers and the actual border clearance process," says YVR's director of innovative travel solutions Linda Schucroft. "What we found from those studies was that a lot of the border clearance process was actually quite administrative in nature."
In collaboration with the Canadian Border Service Agency (CBSA), Schucroft and her team began to develop automated border clearance kiosks, originally for returning Canadian residents, and launched Automated Border Clearance (ABC) in 2009. A total of 65 kiosks are now operational at Vancouver Airport.
"Even though they were only for returning Canadian residents, everyone experienced the benefits of it because foreign passengers who were using the [traditional] line-up saw their wait time reduced," adds Schucroft. "After we implemented this, we saw an 89% reduction in wait times."
Automating border control: a two-step process
This reduction, says Schucroft, can be attributed to BorderXpress' two-step process, which she highlights as its key characteristic. Described as the "world's first self-service border control clearance kiosk", the system does not require pre-registration from passengers or an e-chip passport.
Schucroft explains: "The technology part of it wasn't as complicated as compared to understanding what it was that we wanted to do - moving into the kiosk part of the process."
So, how does it work in practice? First, the passenger scans their passport and completes their declarations onto the machine. This data is then encrypted and sent to the border control agency, which completes the necessary assessment. A government response is sent back to the kiosk within seconds - all in real time. A printed receipt then allows the passenger to move to step two, which Schucroft says is the most vital part of the whole process.
"Step two uses live border officers that validate all the documents that relate to the receipt - the passport and of course the person standing in front of them," Schucroft says. "The officers will conclude by completing a short series of interview questions. Ultimately, they are the decision makers about whether that person is allowed access to their country."
As with any function that relies on technology, security is a legitimate concern. Schucroft insists that the use of live border control officers dampens any fears, and says that rather than weakening border controls, BorderXpress has tightened them.
"Because we are removing the administrative function of their [border control] duty, they actually have more time to observe passengers and analyse them," she adds. "They are therefore putting more value into the entire border control process."
A triumph for innovation
Adding value is a theme Schucroft returns to more than once. She explains that the success of the Canadian ABC system has led to passengers purposely choosing airports with BorderXpress, with numerous surveys commissioned by YVR producing "very positive results".
"I travel regularly for work and pleasure and the last thing I want to do is get off a long flight and stand for one hour to clear a border. I think everyone appreciates BorderXpress," adds Schucroft.
This appreciation transformed into demand when, in 2013, YVR released its US version, Automated Passport Control (APC). YVR claims that when using traditional methods, a US Customs and Border Protection officer can process approximately 41 passengers per hour. With APC, this increases to 162 passengers per hour.
APC has also been installed at the Canada Place Cruise Terminal in Vancouver for cruise passengers.
Alongside the 89% reduction in wait times, this roll-out certainly transmits a positive message, but perhaps more significant is the decision by the CAPA Centre for Aviation to name BorderXpress APC as the 2015 Airport Innovation of the Year. Peter Harbison, CAPA executive chairman, labelled the airport a "pioneer" in innovation, and said the decision was made because the "product has significantly impacted the airport sector".
Schucroft says that such recognition is decisive as it adds another layer of credibility and industry appreciation, although work is ongoing to push BorderXpress to greater heights.
"We are constantly evolving and changing," she says. "We have R&D teams and that's what we do; look at technology changes and trends and see how we can add it to the next-generation of our kiosks."
At the time of writing, there are more than 700 BorderXpress kiosks deployed at 25 airports throughout North America and the Caribbean. The next-generation, however, is going global.
"The global product - BorderXpress Global - that we have just finished making can be configured with virtually any governmental jurisdiction in the world," explains Schucroft. "It can accept any passport, Visa or permanent residency cards, and we're currently working with multiple governments across Europe, Asia and Latin America to bring this technology to their airports."
This version is ready to go, she adds, with YVR configuring it to interface with existing systems. An international sale could be announced within the next month or so.
With a desire to improve every element of automation- and considerations over how international traffic is growing - the team at YVR is not sitting still. BorderXpress now incorporates 37 languages and YVR is planning to expand the scope of its biometric capability.
"We currently provide fingerprint capture as well as facial recognition, but we are working on iris recognition, too," says Schucroft. She warns, however, that despite the success of BorderXpress, human interaction with passengers must always be part of airport security.
"I think [new technology] is a progression that we will see as a trend going forward," she adds. "I think it's vital to the survival of any airport [to innovate]. However, we also believe that there does need to be a fine balance between human interaction and technology.
"Ultimately it should be a border control officer who grants access or not. I don't think a person who can observe behaviour and who is trained to do so can ever be replaced by technology."