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Biometric integration of health passes could ease return to smoother global travel

airport facial recognition masks

“Tourism is not a ‘nice to have’ this year: it’s a requirement. Tourism is a need, a basic human need,” says Greece’s Minister of Tourism, Harry Theoharis, appearing on the Eye on Travel show broadcast from the World Travel & Tourism Council Global Summit held in Cancun, Mexico.

“We are so stressed, we are so mentally unbalanced with all those restrictions, our lives have changed and been upended so thoroughly that we cannot find a way back,” said Theoharis, “unless we find some sort of healing process and tourism is part of that healing process.”

Other speakers talking to Eye on Travel host Peter Greenberg stated that biometrics could have a part to play in the return to more normal travel and even alter other aspects of life.

Greece has been pushing for an overall Digital Green Certificate for travel in the European Union with clear protocols for travelers whether they have been vaccinated, have already had COVID-19 or a negative PCR test.

The country had been lobbying European Commission president, Urusla von der Leyen, ever since the vaccine rollout began at the very beginning of 2021. Von der Leyen’s response was initially “lukewarm” according to Theoharis, but now other EU states are pushing for the same and even more.

The EU-wide digital certificate announced in March requires all issuing bodies such as hospitals and test centres to be able to assign a digital signature to the pass kept on a smartphone, and the European Commission to build a pan-European framework for containing all the bodies and verifying scans of the QR code generated on the phone screen.

Whatever the timeline for the Digital Green Certificate, Greece is opening up from mid-May. The EU has also recently announced that vaccinated Americans can travel to all 27 member states this summer, but can the airline industry and airports cope with the additional checks?

Kevin McAleenan, former Acting United States Secretary of Homeland Security, who now consults airports and jurisdiction on travel security, is bullish: “I’m telling [airports as travel resumes] their investments in technology that can enable seamless travel, are going to pay off.”

Terminals built pre-9/11 have already had to squeeze in installations for enhanced security checks. But McAleenan believes biometrics could smooth out the additional requirements for travel during the pandemic: “Technology is a way to balance throughput at the airport and passenger experience at the same time.”

He believes there will be an initial onus on travelers to research and understand all the requirements of their journey. Then for the new checking process, digital will be the way forward.

“I do think that the development in industry to create ways to digitize, and upload and to secure and the privacy of your health information and share that with air carriers with government – are going to be productive,” said McAleenan, talking about the need for an overall framework.

“If we can use one ID check and electronically pass that through the system, so that each authority doesn’t have to re-check, I think that’s going to be a much more efficient process for the traveler and certainly no loss of security or accuracy when you’re using biometrics,” he said, but countered that the overall travel policies will come from governments and will have to be clear.

Focusing on one specific airport as a case study, Sean Donohue, the CEO of Dallas/Fort Worth International, the busiest airport in the U.S., is predicting an extraordinarily busy summer fuelled primarily by leisure travel as people seek to visit friends and family again.

“To the credit of U.S. Customs and Border Control, we’ve been working with them for several years on biometrics,” said Donohue, “And now when you are an international customer arriving in DFW, as you go through immigrations and customs, the biometric capture of your face is now your clearance document.”

What started as a pilot at the airport two years ago has now been rolled out for all international flights. The same for boarding. Donohue says the focus now is on contactless biometrics and compares the transition to biometric and digital documentation with the change from paper to electronic plane tickets around 25 years ago. There were not always clear standards, but the change was adopted globally.

Security consultant Kevin McAleenan sees a clear transition to digital credentials: “I think the trend towards the digitization of identity is absolutely going to continue and be pronounced. The use of plastic or even paper representations of your identity really are not necessary any more with the evolution of technology and advent of biometrics that are very quick and easy to confirm like facial recognition, like iris.”

COVID-19 is seen as a great accelerator of trends. When McAleenan was asked whether the credentials and biometric verification systems coming to airports might become familiar elsewhere he was more sanguine: “I don’t know that we’re going to get to the point where you need to use them to do daily activities. If you want a more streamlined or VIP experience and avoid lines by using biometrics, then I think that will be an offering that’s more available to all.”

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