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More aviation spending on automation, digital health passes, end-to-end biometrics

More aviation spending on automation, digital health passes, end-to-end biometrics

After the global shock to air travel in 2020, investment in IT by airlines and airports just about returned to growth in 2021 and now looks set for cautious growth in 2022 and stronger growth up to 2024, according to the Air Transport IT Insights 2021 report by aviation communications and IT giant SITA.

Urgent investment in passenger health certificate verification, plus biometrics at the airport or even before leaving home plus the further digitization of journey touchpoints are expected to create a more streamlined – and potentially more standardized – experience and foster trust among passengers as they return to flying as the world emerges from the COVID pandemic.

While there are plenty of opportunities for verification and biometric companies, the industry responses show that the aviation sector sees health passes as remaining part of travel until at least the end of the timeframe in question, 2024.

The survey of senior airport and airline IT decision makers also uncovered commitments to spending more on IT-related sustainability, but here we will focus on the digital and biometric content.

Airlines: biometric boarding to go mainstream

Sorting out the mess of health certificate checking is seen as urgent. While 81 percent of airlines are currently conducting manual checks of passenger health certificates by staff, by the end of 2024 84 percent plan to be doing this via a mobile app (up from 33 percent in 2021) and 49 percent with kiosks, a leap from the current 4 percent.

Automated passenger health pass verification looks set to become part of multiple steps in the journey by 2024. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of airline respondents expect an automated check at check-in (a more than doubling), 64 percent in the transit area (up from 14 percent now), 53 percent for lounge access and 64 percent at boarding (up from the current 18 percent).

Biometric-powered identity management is expected to see a big leap in uptake among airlines. Sixty-five percent of airline respondents report their companies’ staff are currently checking and scanning ID documentation which will rise to 83 percent, whereas the 22 percent (down from 39 percent in 2020) operating self-boarding gates requiring both biometrics and ID documentation will become 62 percent and the current 20 percent operating biometric only self-boarding gates will leap to 50 percent by 2024.

The number of airline respondents reporting they will have biometric identity management solutions in place by the end of 2024 will double to 76 percent.

Airline CIOs set out their priorities for investment either as major programs or R&D by 2024. Mobile applications for passenger services were identified by 88 percent, 95 percent said cloud services and 100 percent included cybersecurity.

In terms of technologies being developed, 42 percent of CIOs are planning major programs or R&D into blockchain, 62 percent into RFID and 82 percent into artificial intelligence.

Airports: health pass checks and technology priorities

Passenger health certificate verification is an area of concern for airports, but not to the same extent as airlines. Currently 68 percent are conducting manual checks by staff. Fifteen percent are relying on mobile apps which will rise to 48 percent by the end of 2024 while the use of kiosks will rise from 5 percent to 31 percent.

Plans for health pass verification around the airport suggest checking will be more the airlines’ domain or collaboration could be driven by airlines. By 2024, 29 percent of airport respondents plan to have health pass checks on entry to the departure building (up from 11 percent) and 37 percent for arrival terminals (also up from 11 percent). 40 percent plan to have checks for check-in and 26 percent at border control, up from the current 7 percent.

Airport priorities by 2024 include self-service processes (84 percent of respondents), touchless solutions for passengers and staff (83 percent) and cloud services (86 percent). For technology areas seeing major programs or R&D by 2024, biometric ID management was one of the most common, with 45 percent of respondents expecting a program in place and 29 percent expecting R&D.

Airports: biometrics across the airport

The application of biometrics is set to increase significantly in the coming three-year period. Respondents were asked about 11 areas of biometrics from security to self-transfer gates. Self check-in is the most popular area of development as the current 59 percent of respondents will grow to 82 percent offering this by 2024, according to their plans.

The use of a single biometric token for all airport touchpoints is the area with the fastest growth. Three percent of airports reported as having this in place in 2021, while 38 percent of respondents hope to have it by 2024. Thirty percent of respondents have biometric border gates, climbing to 51 percent and the number with automated border gates at departure using biometrics and travel documents is set to more than double to 64 percent.


SITA confirmed with Biometric Update that 45 airline CIOs responded and 161 of their airport counterparts in August and September 2021. The airline respondents represent 30 percent of global passenger volume (2019 levels) and their replies are weighted according to passenger numbers.

The airport respondents’ airports represented 30 percent of global passenger traffic (at 2019 levels, 2.82 billion). Their answers are weighted in line with airport traffic size.

Fresh examples of where the trends are already happening

Colombia’s national airline Avianca has partnered with Colombia Migration to open an enrolment counter at Bogotá’s El Dorado airport, and Avianca hub. Colombian citizens are able to register for BioMig, a biographic and biometric procedure involving iris scans, to be able to pass through automated channels when entering and exiting Colombia, reports Aviacionline.

Those already registered for the service report passing through immigration in 20 seconds.

The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) data revealed that as of the end of 2021, 66 Chinese airports were capable of providing facial recognition services, reports Xinhua.

Introducing digital boarding and security checks could enable 234 airports to offer a paperless journey, meaning passengers need only their ID cards to travel, and airports with more than 10 million passengers per year will start offering an ‘easy security check.’

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