Digital Travel Credentials (DTCs) are gaining traction. This paves the way for greater travel digitalization and opens doors for technology providers should enrollment, infrastructure, and standardization conditions be met.
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Finland's DTC Pilot Is in Full Swing
The last few years have seen Identity (ID) digitalization come arrive in leaps and bounds. There is a clear trend of movement toward digitalizing credentials, credential issuance, and usage across many ID applications, with implementations for digital national IDs, drivers’ licenses, and numerous other ID forms all having an active presence today around the world. Being high risk in terms of security, and requiring International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) compliance and further regulation for widescale adoption, digital equivalents of passports have remained a more difficult challenge. There have been plans for so-called Digital Travel Credential (DTC) piloting for a number of years, which have seen various delays, largely due to COVID-19, which left the prospect of DTC realization feeling a little distant. However, September 2023 finally saw movement in this field with the first active deployment of a DTC pilot in Finland.
In Finland’s DTC pilot, Finnair passengers can travel seamlessly through border control without waiting in line by having their passport read by a chip reader that links preregistered DTC information to allow entry efficiently. Crucially, this credential does not act as a replacement for the passport, which is still required at the border crossing, but aids in automating the process. The delayed Canada-Netherlands DTC proposal, with IDEMIA as the technology provider, will likely begin soon alongside this development, with other examples such as in Aruba, powered by SITA and Indicio, looking to serve and extend the same goal. In the Aruba case, the goal is to remove the necessity of holding a passport entirely, with a mobilized version of the document replacing the physical passport, highlighting a varied approach during this nascent stage of DTCs.
While different in the approaches to digitalizing passport information, both possibilities will further develop in the travel industry. The potential adoption of DTCs will accelerate digitalization, with the Finland Pilot, among others coming soon, marking a significant step that could provide a basis, trial, and example for wider implementations. This adds to the industry’s significant development in recent years, through eGates and Automated Border Control (ABC) systems, which have been driven strongly by the increasing number of travelers coming out of COVID-19.
DTCs are clearly in line with the direction the industry, and identities as a whole, are headed, furthering digital transformation and enabling more seamless passenger journeys. We have already seen specific border crossing capabilities from alternative mobile ID credentials (driver’s licenses, National Identities (nID)) in parts of Asia, but the key to a truly modernized digital credential for border crossing is interoperability. Prospective pilots’ DTC systems will enable digital versions of passports within a user’s smartphone that are in line with ICAO standards, but, as an example, Finland is still awaiting legislature from the European Commission (EC) to bring its DTC to the mass market. Regulations will evolve to accommodate the future of DTCs, and the timeline of this will play directly into availability and adoption of solutions.
We can also look at the customer journey in assessing the viability of DTCs and their future evolution. In the case of Finland’s pilot, first, travelers download the DTC app on their smartphone. Thereafter, they must go to a Helsinki police station where the digital version of their passport is created by scanning the chip’s data, capturing facial biometrics. Then, travelers must send their flight details to the Finnish Border Guard no later than 4 hours before their flight. After completing this process, travelers have access to a special line in Helsinki airport where their closed passport is scanned and facial biometrics are captured to grant a speedier border crossing.
It should be noted that this is a fairly clunky process to arrive at a situation that still requires the user to carry their physical passport. While the passport’s presence is only required once for boarding, the need to visit a physical location takes away from the end vision of what a DTC should be. Moreover, based on the developments in Electronic Gates (eGates) and ABC, we must assess the validity of whether DTCs would actually add value to the user and airport stakeholders, given that ABC systems similarly streamline the border crossing process and have seen strong investment over the last few years, particularly in Europe. DTCs are, of course, still in the pilot stage, but alternatives such as the Aruba case, which aims to be passport-less seem to be more aligned with the vision of future border control.
Considerations for Mass Adoption
Whether taking the approach of preregistering traveler information for a speedy border crossing, or aiming for a fully digitalized passport alternative, the enrollment process is of key importance, particularly considering User Experience (UX) and creating an incentive for use. Unlike Finland’s pilot, remote enrollment would provide far more value, in a process that scans the Machine Readable Zone (MRZ) of the passport, Near Field Communication (NFC) reads the chip, and facial biometrics are captured with liveness detection—all from the user’s smartphone. Navigating the system to secure this process as strongly as an in-person enrollment would provide a far stronger solution that would encourage adoption.
We should also consider the infrastructure required to enable DTCs. There will be associated front end and back end costs in the reading devices and biometric scanners, and data management systems, respectively. For widescale use, a standardized system must be present for interoperability, again highlighting the aforementioned need for regulatory bodies to establish a norm. When considering this investment cost, we can raise the question of if this is necessary in airports that have already invested in ABC systems, and if the DTC is in competition with eGates, requiring a separate system or if they can work in conjunction. As pilots are carried out and processes optimized and changed, the interplay between the two will become clear. Either way will require investment.
The opportunity created by potential DTC adoption lands with the technology providers. Digital security and ID players will compete to secure tenders of credential digitalization and management in the same way that we are already familiar with for driver’s licenses and nIDs. It is of note that physical passport issuance will remain untouched, given the derivative nature of potential DTCs, which forms a net positive opportunity for the ID players that are often also in the market of physical credential issuance.