Facial recognition and remote check-in have been two of the most significant technological innovations in aviation’s recent history, re-shaping everything from customer experience to security.

It is with the International Air Transport Association (IATA), however, that these two are being combined into one solution for the first time. The idea, which the association is branding as One ID, brings together biometrics, electronic boarding passes and travel visas into a single form of digital travel document that virtually eliminates mobile or paper-based alternatives.

A project that has been years in the making, it’s being seen as a possible solution to booming passenger rates, which IATA expects to hit 8.2bn in 2037, and the looming prospect of limited capacity in major markets.

While still in its infancy, it is starting to gain traction amid industry bodies, governments and other stakeholders. Recently, it was even endorsed at 40th Assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), which itself is cooperating on the project.

If it does come to life, the solution could prove to be a game-changer for an industry that is currently desperate to simplify processing and find a solution to its capacity woes.

Creating a digital identity

Passengers traditionally need to register their documentation before travelling, typically when booking a flight or when checking in. This triggers a domino effect of controls from security to arrivals, all the way through border security and boarding, during which documents are certified multiple times.

“From the feedback we received from passengers, it is clear that there is more and more need to simplify the data checking process,” explains IATA head of Aviation Facilitation Celine Canu. “One ID allows you to go through them all without needing to show passport or boarding pass.”

Which of the following actions has your business taken in response to effects of COVID-19?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...
“It is clear that there is more and more need to simplify the data checking process.”

The technology relies on four elements, namely creating a digital identity and an identity management platform, as well as using biometric recognition to verify identity verification and establishing a trust framework.

“The main actors in these scenarios would be government agencies, airlines and airports,” says Canu. “We’ve been looking at their requirements, and one of the key elements is to have a solid form of identity; if you want it to be shared ahead of time, it has to be in a digitalised way.”

As a result, IATA and ICAO have been working to develop a certification process of electronic passports and digital identities. Based on these principles, a passenger’s digital identity and travel authorisation will be registered, asserted and verified online, as well as temporarily stored on a cloud-based platform or digital devices, virtually removing the need for documents altogether.

“We also need to make sure that all actors trust that form of identity, especially the border control, which needs to know whether an ID has been tampered with and its owner is authorised to come into the country,” Canu continues. “So, part of One ID is also to allow the storage of digital travel authorisations.”

Finally, being able to log personal information onto a platform means even the most unexpected, last-minute procedures can be dealt with remotely. This would allow government agencies to use a person’s digital identity to produce emergency documents without needing the passenger to go to the consulate in person.

Real-time access through biometrics

Once trust is established, and a virtual bank of digital information is created, access will need to be granted to all stakeholders involved. IATA’s solution to this is the so-called identity management platform (IMP), a system where stakeholders will be able to access passenger identity data and signals for passenger processing, which will grant them real-time visibility of passenger movements throughout the airport.

“Instead of having to show your documents, your face is just what you need to be recognised.”

As Canu explains: “Once you have this system, then you can also introduce a new element, the biometric recognition. So, when you as a passenger walk through the airports, instead of having to show your documents multiple times, your face is just what you need to be recognised. It is checked against the gallery of images which is built just for the duration of the departure processes and if it matches, you are good to go.”

Visas and other travel authorisations would also be integrated into the IMP. “When governments receive your information,” adds Canu, “they perform a number of security checks making sure that you are not on their watch list, and that you’re not persona non grata in the country.

“We want countries to do that in advance, at least two days before the travel to ensure that if you’re not likely to be refused at the border, we prefer that you are before departure, it’s easier to handle the situation.”

Lack of trialling opportunities makes implementation harder

As Canu herself concedes, many issues still need to be addressed before One ID can become available. Specifically, the lack of a trialling phase and the need to establish trust and uniformity amongst different stakeholders make achieving this goal far from easy.

“If we want One ID to be efficient, we need to have this cooperation between airlines, airports and governments.”

First of all, launching such a system might take longer than expected due to the fact that there are not current trials to test its feasibility. “We are trying to be realistic,” she says. “We think we will have a fair implementation of the system by 2035, and this is because there are only some elements of One ID being trialled, there is no full end-to-end process currently being tested.”

Adding to this, Canu explains that industry-wide collaboration is paramount to making One ID work, though not always achievable: “If we want One ID to be efficient, we need to have this cooperation between airlines, airports and governments,” she says.

“This is taking place in some countries but not everywhere. The challenge will be to make sure that we have this cooperation at least in the major markets where we process the highest number of passengers.”

Communication and cooperation will be equally important on the consumer’s end, as Canu says more needs to be done to establish passenger’s trust in biometric technology. “There’s a need to better communicate on what data is already shared with governments,” she continues, “as many people complain that they don’t want governments to have their biometric data but don’t realise that they already have it; when you show your passport, there is a picture of you and that is your biometric.”

Next steps

Fifteen years down the line, IATA hopes its solution will initially be adopted in markets that are struggling with capacity.

“One ID is going to be feasible in the coming years in two or three countries.”

“One ID is going to be feasible in the coming years in two or three countries, but a rollout of the project and wider adoption is not going to be for now,” says Canu. “This is first because you need to have some specification for the digital identity, the first step will be next year, and then governments will have to produce those IDs.”

This makes for another inconvenience for IATA, as she admits that whilst the solution will eventually remove the need to use documents altogether, passengers will still be advised to bring their own at least in the first few years of implementation.

In this context, IATA is encouraging more and more governments to follow the US’ example and take charge of checking passengers’ documents away from airlines. As Canu explains, “Although airlines are in principle still liable, it’s the government who actually takes this responsibility. So, in the coming years, we hope that we could see more of those examples to remove the liability from airlines’ shoulders.”