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“Digitisation at the border” – how airports and airlines are using technology to streamline travel

written by Jordan Chong | November 22, 2018

Air travel technology provider SITA says it is continuing to talk with the Australian Government about further measures to streamline the arrivals and departures process for international travellers.

Currently, Qantas, SITA and Brisbane Airport are conducting a trial where passengers are able to use their mobile phone to board their flight or use the airline’s lounge.

Volunteers travelling on Qantas flights from Brisbane to Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo Narita store their passport details and an image of their face on a Qantas app. That data is then matched to their face when at the boarding gate or when entering the lounge.

The trial is one of the latest examples of the use of biometric technology to minimise the use of travel documents and physical boarding passes around the world.

While the trial does not cover immigration, SITA president for Asia Pacific Sumesh Patel said the company was continuing to discuss the best way to take advantage of new technologies and digitisation at the border, including the government’s ambition to eliminate physical incoming passenger cards for arriving passengers.

“Immigration is not yet integrated and we are still discussing with the governments and the authorities to make it work,” Patel told Australian Aviation on the sidelines of the Australian Airports Association (AAA) national conference in Brisbane on November 14.

“It is all to do with a process. It’s not that the governments don’t want to do it. But they also need to prepare themselves in terms of systems,” he said.


“Right now with the physical form they have a process to deal with it, how to process it, where to store it, where to scan it.

“If they are going to digitise it, they need to change these processes and the system at the back-end too.”

In July 2017, the Australian Government abolished the green outgoing passenger card.

Further, the government has signalled plans to replace, or digitise, the orange incoming passenger card. Instead of filling out a physical form, passengers would instead be asked questions online, while other information would be collected from airline systems.

A new generation smartgates at the nation’s international airports should mean about 90 per cent of international travellers will be processed automatically, with no human interaction, by 2020.

The aim of these measures, as well as the rolling out of new generation smartgates at the nation’s international airports, is to have about 90 per cent of international travellers processed automatically, with no human interaction, by 2020.

Patel said the advances in digital technology such as the “single secure token” that links biometrics, for example fingerprints or the face, to a passenger’s travel documents could at some point in the future render boarding gates obsolete.

That would allow airports to do more within the existing terminal space as the aviation industry braces for a doubling of passenger numbers to eight billion over the next two decades according to IATA forecasts.

“As long as the cameras can capture, the point of validation could be just when you are at the boarding the plane at the gate to so you don’t board the wrong flight,” Patel said.

“Every stop you go it keeps track of where you are going.”

SITA already works with the Australian Government on its use of advance passenger processing (APP) for all international flights departing the country, which was switched on in 2016.

Under this system, passengers are pre-cleared for departure when checking in online, via an airport kiosk or at the counter, when their names and other personal information is checked against government watchlists in real-time.

The implementation of outbound advanced passenger processing followed Australia already pre-clearing all international travellers flying into the country.

Looking internationally, Patel said SITA has been working on trials where a single biometric token is used for checkin, bag drop, immigration and boarding at a number of airports around the world, including Orlando airport in the United States for British Airways flights.

VIDEO: A November 2017 video of passengers using Smart Path technology from SITA’s YouTube channel.

Airports planning to expand self-service options

Figures from the SITA 2018 Air Transport IT Insights report show 88 per cent of airports had checkin kiosks in place today, with 95 per cent expecting to have them within the next three years.

Self-service bag drop facilities are also on the rise. The report says about half of all airports have assisted bag drop, with that figure expected to reach 78 per cent by 2021.

Further, about 78 per cent of airports are expected to have unassisted bag drop within three years.

And 77 per cent of airports are planning major programs or research and development in biometric ID management over the next three years.

Patel said airports are “clearly seeing IT as an enabler”.

“Earlier, it was a case of letting the head of IT manage it, but now CEOs like looking at what IT solutions and what digitisation will help [them] to differentiate [themselves] or enhance [their] passenger service,” Patel said.

The report also shows 42 per cent of airports have wait-time monitoring in place, an increase from 31 per cent in 2017.

And 58 per cent of airports say they plan to provide passengers with wait-time notifications to their mobile devices by 2021. Just 17 per cent do so today.

“The latest solutions for managing passenger flows at airports use intelligent technologies such as predictive analytics to anticipate bottlenecks before they even occur,” the report says.

“It is clear, too, that airports using these technologies intend to share the information with their passengers.”

Pre-digital and post-digital passengers

SITA vice-president Catherine Mayer said travellers could be broadly defined into two categories, pre-digital and post-digital.

While post-digital travellers wanted to do everything themselves compared with pre-digital travellers who preferred the interaction with humans to complete their formalities such as checkin and bag drop, the two were starting to converge.

And airports, airlines and travel services providers had to keep this in mind when designing their offerings.

“When you’re talking about airport design it’s important to talk about this intergenerational part but more importantly remember who’s driving the change,” Mayer told delegates at the AAA conference on November 13.

“The pre-digital needs just a little bit more time to adopt that technology and feel comfortable with it while the post-digital traveller is driving technology adoption.”

Considerations include the use of emerging products such as holograms to display information or promotions at the airport, online chatbots which can assist more passengers more quickly during disruptions, and service robots offering multilingual assistance.

Patel said the trial with Qantas was due to end in early December, with all parties to then review the outcomes before deciding on the way forward.

“We will agree with them in terms of next steps and what they want to do in terms of further enhancements or extending the trials,” Patel said.

“We are testing a new technology both for Qantas and us.”

VIDEO: A look at SITA’s LEO Robot trial at Geneva Airport from SITA’s YouTube channel.


  • David


    Call me old fashioned, but I do like the personal service, and dislike the self service kiosks being forced on us by immigration controls, and airlines.

    • Chris


      I agree with you.

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