Apple’s support for digital ID marks important milestone in the seamless passenger journey

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With Apple officially launching support for digital ID and mobile driving licenses (mDLs) in the Apple Wallet in Arizona and plans to roll out the support to Connecticut, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Oklahoma and Utah in 2022, the future looks bright and digital for a more seamless passenger journey.

The news comes as a welcome step forward in the maturity of digital identity in the air transportation industry. It empowers passengers to use their mobile as their remote control for travel. Adding a driver’s license or state ID to the Apple Wallet can be done in a few simple steps using the smartphone camera and physical ID to ensure that the person adding the identity card to the Wallet is the same person to whom the identity card belongs. The state is responsible for verifying and approving the user’s request to add their driver’s license or state ID to the Wallet. Once approved, users will no longer have to show their physical ID or license – the digital version is accepted with the same level of trust as if it were a physical ID.

In a great leap forward for the seamless travel journey, the digital ID will be accepted by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at checkpoints in approved airport locations, with Phoenix being among the first. It will also be an available option for TSA PreCheck travelers. At the checkpoint, travelers just tap their iPhone or Apple Watch at the TSA’s credential authentication technology (CAT) reader. Using near-field communication (NFC), a secure connection is established between the user device and the CAT reader. The user is provided the opportunity to review what information will be shared with the TSA for the verification process. Users unlock their phone with Face ID or Touch ID to provide consent and without having to hand over possession of their device. The TSA reviews the information and also captures a photo of the traveler for verification purposes, ensuring the holder of the phone is also the traveler and ID holder. Next, the CAT system connects to the TSA’s SecureFlight database to confirm flight information, also eliminating the need for travelers to show or scan the boarding pass.

According to Statista, the current number of smartphone users today is 6.648 billion. This figure is up considerably from 2016, when there were only 3.668 billion users, making this an ideal time to introduce more convenient digital identity processes for travel. Giving passengers full control of their identity and digitizing the passenger experience helps simplify the travel experience, boost confidence to fly and reduce physical touchpoints when Covid-19 remains a significant travel challenge in many parts of the world.

To travel, a digital form of ID alone is not enough. Travelers must also prove they have a valid boarding pass and might also have to provide proof of health status or other health-related paperwork to authorize right to travel. When digital ID is coupled with biometric-enabled passenger processing and integration with existing airline systems and infrastructure, there is a tremendous opportunity to modernize the customer experience.

Today few US airports have adopted a fully biometric-enabled passenger journey, particularly for domestic travel. Often this has been due to regulatory constraints as much as the lack of a machine-readable and verifiable way to verify a form of ID other than an e-chip passport. Still, examples do exist across the industry, such as San Francisco International Airport and United Airlines’ successful trial of SITA Smart Path to support a low-touch experience and optimize passenger processing, by enabling US domestic travelers to scan their driver’s license as part of the airline check-in process. At bag drop and boarding, a traveler just takes a quick photo and their boarding pass information is verified, eliminating the need to fumble around to hand over possession of an ID or boarding pass for scanning by the agent. Projects such as this continue to show that biometrics will play a crucial role in the airport of the future. Beyond the airport, biometrics can also serve as a convenient and secure approach to auxiliary services like car rental, event entrance or hotel accommodation.

The air transportation industry has made excellent progress in digitizing essential processes, such as obtaining a visa, booking travel and organizing accommodation. The aviation sector has come a long way in transforming outdated paper-based processes into modern digital equivalents. And it will soon be the case – throughout all 27 member states of the EU – that the process of verifying a passenger’s identity and ‘stamping’ their passport will become fully digitized and automated.

Since the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve seen an important international initiative underway to help digitalize the verification of health status for travel, thanks to International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), in the form of the Digital Travel Credential (DTC). In the medium to long term, the DTC will enable governments to have far greater trust in biometric and biographic data they receive directly from passengers as it will immediately establish that the data is genuine, isn’t forged and hasn’t been tampered with in any way. Using a wallet to identify a document (whether a DTC or mDL) is a positive step forward as it gives the user control and enables all other apps to access that data instead of storing the document in each app which is a closed, proprietary approach.

As encouraging as these milestones are, we must not lose sight of ensuring government authorities receive the information they need when they need it. Indeed, only when they are satisfied with the quality, completeness and timeliness of data received – particularly for the traveler’s digital identity – can we realistically expect to turn our attention to devising better, faster, more streamlined passenger experiences. And we must ensure new requirements do not add confusion, time or complexity to the journey.

It is simply not enough for one airport, transportation operator or hotel to make standalone digital options available to a subset of their passengers and guests. Digital travel must be universal to succeed and ensure operations are demonstrably capable of making travel easier every step of the way. It will enable passengers to have direct control over every aspect of a safe, secure, easy and trusted process – whenever, wherever and however they travel.

We expect in the coming years that the development of a universally accepted digital identity will replace the traditional passport. This will enable travel across borders with any airline or airport while ensuring the passenger remains in complete control of their identity while providing actionable, trusted data only to appropriate parties such as border agencies.

The benefits include a reduced arrivals infrastructure, providing new opportunities to increase existing airport throughput by design and not expansion. Ultimately, simplifying the passenger journey through digital identity will be a foundation for rebuilding a more resilient and agile air transportation industry that entices large volumes of passengers to return to the skies. SITA continues to work with governments, airlines and airports to develop and deliver the benefits of travel using a permanent digital identity.

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About Author

With more than 20 years of travel technology experience, Sherry Stein has a passion for business transformation and innovation. As head of technology, she is currently responsible for ensuring the technology solutions SITA provides meet the needs of the airlines, airports, governments and other aviation stakeholders across the Americas. Sherry joined SITA Lab, the company’s research and development arm, in 2015 where she led programs focused on co-innovation with industry partners to evaluate blockchain, biometrics and digital data technologies as tools to create a safe and seamless journey.

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