How Blockchain Will Redefine the Airport Experience

By Pragati Verma, Contributor

Imagine walking though an international airport and boarding your flight without your passport ever leaving your pocket; no labyrinth at check-in or immigration control lines, and no need to stop for repeated boarding card or passport checks. Instead, airlines, airports, and government agencies verify your identity through biometric face or iris recognition as you glide through the terminal.

You may not need to imagine much longer: Several airports and airlines are working to create such a pre-flight experience around the world, from check-in to boarding.

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Now consider a post-COVID-19 world, when air travel resumes: Not only are these paperless solutions more hygienic, but they could also help reduce crowds—and possible exposure or virus transmission through physical contact—by streamlining and speeding up the check-in, immigration, security and boarding processes.

Streamline Your Time

One such solution—One ID, an integrated identity management solution from The International Air Transportation Association (IATA)—that could eliminate the use of paper-based travel documents with the aid of biometric technology, has been tested on several flights between London and Dubai. International Airlines Group (IAG), the global airline group that owns British Airways, has conducted similar trials and allowed biometric boarding without using boarding passes or passports in Orlando and Los Angeles in 2018. Emirates Airlines, in collaboration with the General Directorate of Residence and Foreigners Affairs in Dubai (GDRFA), is working on allowing select transit passengers to move through Dubai airports without paper passports.

“You will see passengers breezing through airports without waiting in annoying lines for repeated document checks.”

—Irra Ariella Khi, co-founder and CEO, Zamna

“You will see passengers breezing through airports without waiting in annoying lines for repeated document checks,” says Irra Ariella Khi, co-founder and CEO of Zamna, a London-based blockchain startup that created the data verification platform for IAG, IATA, and GDFRA.

According to Khi, the current system of check-in, immigration, and boarding is a waste of time, resources, and airport real estate. “Kiosks, check-in agents, and counters—all of them are designed to do the same thing over and over again each time you fly,” she says. “They check your identity documents at every checkpoint and don’t know if you’ve been checked before. Even if you have traveled with them 100 times, they’ll establish your identity all over again.”

Furthermore, passengers are willing to share their biometrics. According to IATA’s 2019 Global Passenger Survey, 70 percent of passengers would divulge additional personal information—including their biometric identifiers—to eliminate lines and speed up processes at the airport.

Blockchain Takes Off

Zamna’s goal to reduce airport wait times is built on the back of blockchain technology. Arguing that blockchain is the best tool to validate passenger data, Khi explains: “It attaches an anonymous token to the verified data, so each stakeholder can validate passengers’ biographic and biometric data, and check who they say they are without needing to see the data an agency or a competing airline holds.”

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According to Khi, airlines, airports, and government agencies currently don’t share or cross-reference their data about passenger identity “because they need to protect the underlying sensitive data, and end up repeating manual data checks several times.”

Zamna’s proprietary Advance Passenger Information validation platform ingests passenger data that airlines collect and verify while booking a flight or checking in. Using this data, it allows security agencies, governments and other airport services to access a secure, immutable, and distributed network of validations. Since it attaches an anonymous token to the data, everyone on the network can validate identity without seeing the actual underlying data. “This reduces the need to physically check passenger data in airports, helping deliver a more seamless travel experience with less delays and queues,” she adds.

Though Zamna may be a pioneer in scaling blockchain to big aviation projects, it’s not alone in exploring ways to use blockchain to connect the passenger information sets siloed among airlines, governments, and safety agencies. Airport technology company SITA experimented with blockchain to store and share flight data between British Airways, Heathrow Airport, Geneva Airport, and Miami International Airport two years ago. It has now launched its Aviation Blockchain Sandbox to encourage airlines to explore blockchain applications. Several others, such as Winding Tree and Travel Block, are working with airlines to create blockchain-based booking platforms sets.

The Future of Flying

As software platforms like Zamna pull together multiple stakeholders with a way to securely validate and revalidate passenger identity and data, they don’t just speed up the process. They also improve accuracy of passenger-supplied advanced information and spot mistakes in passenger information, whether made by passengers or airlines staff. That is important, says Khi, “because governments are fining airlines for inaccurate information.” IATA’s 2016 research indicates that fines for boarding passengers without correct documentation average $3,500 per passenger, and airlines then have to fly the incorrectly documented traveler back to their country of origin at their own expense.

Accidentally selecting the wrong option from a drop-down menu or misspelled names can sometimes have serious repercussions for passengers too, Khi warns. “There are 17 different spellings of the name Muhammad. A mistake in that spelling can have significant implications.” Zamna’s platform would flag the error if the name didn’t match the identity document.

Also, the system is touchless. That makes it more hygienic than any process that requires airport agents to repeatedly touch paper documents. “COVID-19 is showing that the technology is not just nice to have but [necessary],” Khi says. “The physical process being reduced by technology will improve hygiene in overpopulated spaces.”

“You can improve hygiene, as well as security, by streamlining the process to identify passengers and deciding whether they should be allowed to board a flight or cross an international border, or be quarantined.”

—Irra Ariella Khi, co-founder and CEO, Zamna

Speeding up the verification process is bound to make airports more secure, she continues. “The departure hall is full of people queuing up in multiple places. You can improve hygiene, as well as security, by streamlining the process to identify passengers and deciding whether they should be allowed to board a flight or cross an international border, or be quarantined.”

She expects demand for this kind of verified data-driven decision-making to rise, as international travel operations change often and grow more complete. The European Union, for example, is planning to introduce the European Travel Information and Authorization System, requiring anyone flying from a visa-free country to obtain additional authorization prior to entering the Schengen area, an area comprised of 26 countries that function mostly as a single jurisdiction for international travel purposes.And as Khi points out, “With fast-growing passenger traffic and governments demanding more and accurate data, the aviation sector will need technology-driven solutions to meet the requirements and mitigate the risks of significant disruption to travel.”