How airports are banking on smart solutions post-Covid

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For the last two-years or so, Kenyan airline industry has been battling tough economic conditions caused by the Covid-19’s lockdown measures.

In March 2020, the government restricted local and international flights to curb the spread of the virus, which was causing havoc around the globe.

Whereas these measures contained further spread of the virus, it had a negative impact on local airlines including national carrier, the Kenya Airways, whose passenger numbers dropped significantly.

Data from the Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) showed that the passenger numbers at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) dropped from 5.8 million in 2020, to 1.6 million last year.

After the government lifted the ban last year, the local aviation industry rebounded, pushing up revenue earnings and visitor arrivals.

The Tourism Research Institute (TRI) 2021 tourism sector performance report showed that tourism earnings jumped 65 percent to Sh146.51 billion last year up from Sh88.56 billion in 2020

Similarly, tourist arrivals through airports and border points also increased 53.3 percent to 870,465 from 567,848 over the period.

With easing of travel limitations, border control authorities are likely to spend more time scrutinising travellers’ records, given the added need to review health credentials and vaccination statuses, according to Jiten Vyas, regional group chief operating officer at VFS Global.

To cope with rising demand and reduce coronavirus transmission, the industry is embracing new technologies to fasten passenger document checking – including passengers’ locator forms and proofs of negative Covid-19 tests, which are currently done manually. 

Also, health officials are weary of overcrowding at airports as well as security threats as air travel regains its pre-pandemic momentum.

As a result, the government is focusing on contactless traveller experience at airports through biometric authentication innovations.

“While biometric identity management systems have helped improve this situation to some extent by enabling officials at border gates to verify the identity of passengers at a faster rate, this sector demands frequent innovations,” says Mr Vyas

”For instance, they ruled out paper verification of Covid-19 test results and vaccination certificates upon arrival in Kenya, sparking local airlines’ adoption of electronic verification processes.” says.

Other countries are also adopting new technologies for seamless operations at airports.

In October 2020, the United Arabs Emirate (UAE) carrier Emirates launched an integrated biometric pathway at Dubai International Airport for travellers to pass through the airport without showing any documents. 

The technology, which uses facial and iris recognition, allows passengers to check in, complete immigration forms and board in a contactless way, reducing queuing times and supporting health and security measures.

As part of the biometric pathway, Dubai’s General Directorate of Residency and Foreign Affairs, in collaboration with Emirates Airline, developed a Smart Tunnel technology, enabling passengers to be automatically cleared by immigration authorities while walking through it.

Face Express, a similar innovation piloted at the Japanese airports of Narita and Tokyo Haneda, enabled a boarding procedure for international flights through facial recognition technology without document review.

Other emerging border management technologies include artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data analytics. 

However, adoption of these technologies are relatively limited currently, says Mr Vyas.

“These emerging technologies would enhance border officials’ judgment through AI-enabled intelligence in analysing biometric markers such as facial recognition,” he says, adding that  “Next in line, data analytics can help detect suspicious profiles by analysing various data points that a passenger submits, right from booking an air ticket to applying for a visa and subsequent transit interface.”

But, adoption of advanced technologies for border control management comes with its share of risks such as manipulation of machine learning systems to make false predictions, with a fatal impact on outcomes at the border entry/exit decision points.

Similarly, the integrity of data sets can be corrupted through targeted attacks leading to false predictions, Vyas says.

“Given such risks, protecting data sets, including the training data, becomes critical. Core security principles of encryption, access control and authentication, logging and monitoring become important and should be included right from the design and development stage of the systems.” 

Vyas further says that vulnerability management is another key area that should be actively managed, especially since many open-source libraries are used in systems development.

“Overall, securing just the algorithms and data sets is not enough, rather, an end-to-end approach in applying security by design should be adopted and managed on an ongoing basis.”

Border control authorities can also block travellers with suspicious profiles through AI and machine learning algorithms, forcing them to go through manned border gates and narrowing the country’s chances of illegal entry.

“With the world on the move again, wider acceptance of digital and intuitive technologies will be critical to regaining pre-pandemic momentum, albeit with adequate risk-proofing,” said Mr Vyas.

VFS Global, the world’s largest outsourcing and technology services specialist for governments and diplomatic missions worldwide.

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