How behind-the-scenes technology can
usher in a new golden age of air travel
he travel industry has boomed after uncertainty caused by the pandemic. More than 474 million tourists traveled globally between January and July 2022. By 2023, the industry could see a return to pre-pandemic levels, but with a twist. As challenging as the pandemic
was for the aviation industry, it also initiated a massive leap in the use of digital IDs and customer trust in sharing those alongside biometric data via a user-friendly opt-in system. This technology is exciting—widespread adoption promises to bring some of the fun back to travel by eliminating long lines and wait times, helping customers focus on a positive overall airport experience and their destination.
Meet three innovators leading change in the aviation industry, helping to herald a new, technology-powered golden age of travel.
Growing An Enjoyable Travel Industry
As chief information officer and head of digital strategy at Miami International Airport (MIA), one of the busiest hubs in the U.S, cooperation and transparency are key to how Maurice Jenkins looks at the future of air travel.
“The industry does not have the same data standards and governance of data across airports and borders, but we at Miami follow best practice where data is only used for its intended purpose,” he says. “But I think we now have the opportunity to start looking at more opportunities to increase stakeholder collaboration.”
For Mr. Jenkins, the pandemic provided a chance for accelerated cooperation. Engaging with both airlines and government agencies, he found people willing to work together. “We looked at how we can integrate innovative technology, enhance the customer experience and meet demands around safety and security. We looked at what was driving the airport space collectively, rather than working in individual disparate silos.”
Furthermore, working with NEC and SITA (the world’s leading specialist in air transport communications and information technology), MIA represents a new industry standard: The international gateway is set to become home to the largest airport-based biometric program in the U.S., with more than 240 touchpoints across more than 130 gates. Key to this ecosystem are protocols following international best practices to protect high volumes of customer data, Mr. Jenkins says, which include storing it for less than 12 hours before wiping from the MIA system.
For Mr. Jenkins, the ability to board an A380 plane with 450 passengers within 20 minutes is one measure of technological success. “It just goes to show that through innovation and integration with good business partners, we can lay out the framework for moving forward, as our industry continues to grow,” he says. “Our constant coordination and planning with NEC and SITA have been critical.”
But the work is not over. “We’re close to moving 50 million passengers this year. There are more and more people getting into airports and getting on planes,” Mr. Jenkins says. “The airport is a city within a city—and it’s a city that never sleeps. You don’t get to rest on your laurels here. It’s a constant evolution of being able to challenge yourself and deliver. When I wake up in the morning, I know it’s never going to be the same day twice.”
Head of Digital Strategy and CIO at Miami International Airport
SITA has worked with more than 1,000 airports globally to solve major challenges around managing the passenger journey in a seamless and efficient way. For Sherry Stein, head of technology at SITA Americas, biometric digital identities are just one way the travel industry is problem solving to enhance the customer experience.
“I have been in the travel industry for more than 25 years. I started in aviation technology and never looked back,” Ms. Stein says. “It’s just such a dynamic industry, and I love helping to support innovation in travel technology and streamlining the passenger experience.”
Even before the pandemic created a need for a more seamless digital interface, many problems were already clear. The 2022 SITA Passenger IT Insights survey found that 90% of travelers said they were willing to share biometrics if it meant easier travel. SITA Smart Path, which utilizes the NEC I:Delight identity management platform, is already meeting those demands for paperless departures, reducing wait times by 30%—a figure that is predicted to increase.
“Our focus pre-Covid was around seamless travel. Since then, it has been about how to make it touchless,” she says. “Eighty percent of travelers are first-time fliers or only fly once a year, so there’s a lot of time and attention that has to be spent making sure that the technology is easy for adoption.”
NEC was the natural choice, says Ms. Stein, thanks to its best-of-breed biometric capability, AI-based facial-recognition software and long-term industry expertise. But finding the best solution for the customer does not only require the cooperation of two companies, it also relies on cross-industry collaboration to utilize the latest in smartphone technology. “How do we make travel fun for the user without compromising safety, security and other things important to government and aviation stakeholders?” she says. “Technology is going to be critical and remain critical, especially now as consumers have the convenience of a very powerful computer in their hand.”
An exciting future lies ahead, says Ms. Stein, as stakeholders like NEC and SITA continue to work together. “I think technology is going to be even more critical in the future—driven by questions like how do we create a better ecosystem where data can be shared between stakeholders without compromising privacy?” she says. “And without compromising the passengers’ willingness or ability to trust the players in that ecosystem.”
Thinking Ahead Through Technology
If it reduced waiting time at the airport, would you use biometric recognition to replace a boarding pass and passport?
Do you already use biometrics in your daily life for activities like payments or accessing devices?
For Keith Terreri, executive vice president of enterprise and digital services at NEC, digital ID verification not only allows for greater safety and security in travel but also offers a better experience overall for passengers.
“Prior to the pandemic, there was a strong movement to create digital IDs and improve the customer experience,” says Mr. Terreri, who works with government agencies, airports, airlines and companies like SITA—the IT company that nearly every passenger flight in the world relies on—to develop solutions. “Combining our software expertise with SITA’s leadership in airport technology, services and infrastructure, it’s no longer a mandate for just entry and exit, it’s about the whole curb-to-gate experience.”
Through their partnership, NEC supported SITA at MIA, which last year became the busiest U.S. gateway for international passenger traffic. “We’re creating the most seamless, touchless journey,” says Mr. Terreri. “We don’t want people focused on looking for their passport or worrying about the bag drop line. It’s about the airport being a destination. And airports and airlines want passengers to have a good experience, it’s an opportunity to drive revenue through retail and other offerings.”
Improved experience (and revenue) aside, NEC is no stranger to the security concerns surrounding digital IDs as a global leader in business IT solutions, says Mr. Terreri. Today, NEC’s tailored approach provides seamless and secure solutions across the globe. Through a partnership with Star Alliance, the world’s largest global airline alliance, 65,000 travelers are using Star Alliance Biometrics, powered by NEC I:Delight, to improve their international travel experience.
What’s more, in working with SITA, I:Delight is reaching airports across the world and in March 2023 will be on show at the Passenger Terminal Expo in Amsterdam. For Mr. Terreri, it is only the beginning. “It’s just about doing the right thing, being secure and helping our partners and customers reach their goals with digital ID verification that allows for not only safety and security but also a better customer experience beyond the airport such as hotel check-in, personalized shopping experiences or attending concerts and sports games—all with a quick scan.”
Reshaping The Travel Experience
Executive Vice President of Digital & Enterprise Services at NEC Corporation of America
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Discover Star Alliance Biometrics, powered by NEC I:Delight.
Would you choose an airline carrier or airport based on its ease of use?
Head of Technology at SITA Americas