As we emerge from the pandemic, we’ve seen numerous articles describing how consumers are eagerly contemplating a return to travel, visiting family and friends they may have seen only on computer screens during this unprecedented global pandemic. Similarly, TSA reporting shows a continuing rise in daily travel volumes, and a recent GBTA poll highlighted interest in business travel resumption.
While consumers are excited about the opportunity to travel again, travel has always come with some amount of stress. Prior to COVID-19, TSA, CBP, and the travel industry had already begun to address these stress points, piloting innovative ideas and technologies to support an “airport of the future” that could enable the aviation community to respond to rising travel volumes, while enhancing the traveler experience and providing better and more adaptive security. Since the pandemic began, they’ve continued these efforts, adding additional health and safety protections into the effort.
As we approach the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we believe it’s time to consider how to enable an environment conducive to aviation passenger innovation investment, by both government and industry, that will serve the U.S. and its partners well for the next 20 years.
Based on the pilots to date and our experience while serving at DHS, we believe there are concrete ways the traveler experience could improve in the near term:
Decrease stress by enabling passengers to better manage their time. As passengers check in on their mobile device, they could receive an estimate of the amount of time it will take them from arrival at the airport to arrival at their departure gate based on current schedules, allowing them to better plan. Then, upon arrival at the airport perimeter, passengers could first receive a security screening appointment window, based on their departure time, and then receive a boarding appointment window, giving the passenger time to shop or just sit and read. These real-time interactions will also enable the airports to better predict and manage flight times and staffing, resolve congestion, and plan for future airport facility enhancements.
Allow passengers to use their photo instead of an ID and boarding pass. Passengers could opt-in to a process where they can use a photo already on file as their boarding pass and ID for check in, bag drop, security screening, and boarding. Other passengers could be processed using a one-time biometric match to their ID at screening.
Invest in facility changes that promote social distancing. Passengers could choose to be remotely screened at the car rental return, mass transit station, airport parking lot, or airport hotel lobby. This would lead to more predictable, steady volumes at the checkpoints, and more options for passengers.
Enhance passenger airport navigation. Just like the traffic apps many of us use today, airports could provide passengers with “way finding” – enabling passengers to avoid congestion and choose more efficient routes, based on up-to-date airport information such as which gates are currently boarding or what areas are temporarily closed due to construction, and even point out the best route to a specific store.
These enhancements are only possible when public- and private-sector aviation stakeholders work together in open, transparent ways. Government and industry must agree to information-sharing policies, practices, and standards and be ready to openly share information on pilot programs, policy determinations, and other efforts underway. Policymakers can then responsibly explore and respond to legitimate questions about the appropriate use of personally identifiable data, including biometrics.
Open standards created through information-sharing policies also enable a level playing field, encouraging innovation and entry of new entities into the market, including small businesses. Open standards can also provide transparency for travelers about what information is being collected and with whom it is shared, how that information can be used, and what cyber protections are in place.
In addition to creating an environment of transparency and open standards, we must also incentivize experimentation and innovation. When TSA was created, Congress authorized a Registered Traveler (RT) program, which was expected to serve as a test bed for security enhancements, from biometrics to new physical screening technology. It’s time to expand beyond the RT program and into a new model, with the elements mentioned above, that includes a set of open technology standards and policies that provide airports, airlines, and technology firms with the certainty they need to build programs that will benefit more passengers across their entire travel experience, and assist in the effective management of the air travel environment as a whole.
By taking these steps, the aviation stakeholder community – across the executive and legislative branches of government, as well as in the private sector – can create a post-pandemic aviation security model that works better for everyone. We should take advantage of this unique moment in time to rethink how to incentivize innovation, and create programs and policies that will provide benefits to passengers and for the aviation community for years to come.