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Govt, private sector, passenger needs must all align for DTC to work

EIC session explores the future of travel with digital travel credentials
Govt, private sector, passenger needs must all align for DTC to work
 

Travel is already one of the more visible touchpoints for biometrics in many people’s lives. But facial recognition systems for customs and border control are just the beginning. A session at EIC 2024 breaks down how digital travel credentials (DTCs) will shape the future of travel through enhanced biometric security and a smoother passenger experience.

Digital identity brings its own challenges, notably around compliance with various privacy standards, rules and regulations. Annet Steenbergen, an independent advisor on digital identity and seamless travel, notes that, while EIC buzzes about roaming digital ID wallets, “if we physically travel the world, we still need to use our passport. You cannot travel the world without it.”

Complicating the situation as usual is an uneven landscape of laws. Travelers can still fly domestic flights in the U.S. with a plain old driver’s license, for now. (As of May 2025, domestic flights will theoretically require a Real ID or enhanced driver’s license.) Mobile driver’s licenses, notes Steenbergen, are gaining ground.

“But in the EU, you need an EU identity card to travel. You cannot travel on a driver’s license.”

A digitized travel credential, such as a digital passport housed in a mobile wallet, could help simplify identity for travelers. Steenbergen notes two key areas in which DTCs will have an impact. “First and foremost, security,” she says. “Border security, national security, aviation security, airport security – identity management at a very high level of security is extremely important to counter cross-border organized crime, terrorism, human smuggling.”

“The other one is to make travel easier and more fun.”

Unfortunately, while the EUDI Wallet promises to store visas, passports and other travel documents for checking into flights and hotels, Steenbergen says this is “really ambitious.”

“This is exactly what we need to have. But we’re not there yet.”

How will a DTC fit in a wallet? And once a wallet houses a DTC, how does one travel with it? The journey to establish standards and best practices has begun with initiatives like the UN International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)’s publication of the first standards for a digital travel credential. But there is still a long road ahead.

Dutch government showcases pilot Canada-Netherlands project on DTCs

A case study of the Dutch government’s pilot project on digital travel credentials yields some key learnings and insights. Wim van der Lingen, architect of border innovation for the Netherlands’ Ministry of Justice and Security, emphasizes the importance of passenger experience and  integration with existing systems.

Lingen describes an overlap of Dutch bureaucracies with hands on the project, and the selection of KLM Airlines as the flight partner. “Travelers traveling in the first quarter for this year with KLM from Canada to the Netherlands were invited to join the pilot,” Lingen says. “When they would join, they could download an app that was in the app stores of Google and Apple and with that they could derive a DTC by reading the passport, taking a selfie and getting the DTC stored on the phone.”

The Netherlands invited 16000 people to participate in the pilot. Ten percent downloaded the app right away. But there were hiccups in the process of creating a digitized travel credential. It took some users multiple tries to derive a DTC by reading their passport chip. Some failed altogether. A liveness detection feature also proved to be a hurdle.

But, the main takeaway? For the most part, the pilot proved that a digital travel credential system works.

“We really put ourselves in a hard place by saying we want to test the DTC with real passengers, in real life situations,” Lingen says. “We had to cross all the boxes of quality control, of privacy, of human rights and algorithms of information security. All got implemented, and actually worked.”

The fastest time to process a traveler using a DTC was 6.5 seconds. Lingen notes that was “a traveler or someone who was really instructed who knew exactly what to do.” The average was 12-14 seconds, which is still twice as fast as Schipol’s current biometric e-gates.

In the future, usability and passenger-friendly design will be key to the success of a digital travel credential, as will installing the necessary infrastructure to implement its use.

Another key learning, says Lingen, is that “it will be very difficult to create an app that will read all passports on our phones. We had about seven types of phones and three passports for three countries, which is only a very limited number. And we had to make a very big effort to get that running.”

Finally, says Lingen, “we need permanent directives in place to enable us to process traveler data. We need to know from when, and up to when, we can check that information.”

Despite security and convenience of DTC, roadblocks remain

All of this amounts to a complex checklist of needs for implementing a digital travel credential. Infrastructure is costly, data privacy standards vary across borders, and the incentives for government to promote DTCs beyond border control are low.

Allowing private entities like airlines to issue DTCs is a potential solution, but there must be industry willingness to change and improve the travel experience – for instance, enable people to present and get their travel document verified before they go to the airport.

Usability presents another obstacle, in that people must be able to derive their credential onto their phone. And then there are mDLs.

In a panel on the future of digital travel, Francois Blanc, managing director of Amadeus’s Travel ID, says the key question for travelers is, what’s the fastest way to check in? Digital credentials are perfect for online, he says. “But then when we start to go into the physical space, if showing your real passport is faster than any digital version, then people are going to stick to showings of a passport as long as they’re also mandated to have it with them on top of that.”

In other words, the path to a world in which travel runs exclusively on digital travel credentials is likely to be a long trek.

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