months in to the global COVID-19 pandemic, borders remain closed for 85 countries
around the world, according to Kayak, and reopening plans are continually
changing as new outbreaks occur.
global passenger traffic (revenue passenger kilometers) will not return to pre-COVID-19
levels until 2024.
The return to an
open and robust air travel industry is dependent on many factors including
containment of the virus, development of vaccines, a resumption of corporate
travel, strong consumer confidence and the lifting of travel restrictions.
help to facilitate this process by enabling contract tracing that correlates passenger
data with confirmed cases of COVID-19.
SITA is one of
the companies actively developing this type of solution. We talked to the
company’s portfolio director for border management, Peter Sutcliffe, to learn
more. The conversation has been edited slightly for brevity.
SITA has had border management technology for
quite some time. Can you give us a bit of that history?
Twenty years ago, countries started putting
electronic border control systems in place, really to cover three main points:
first, implementing public policy, like visas and the authority for certain
people to travel a country. Then it started to be used more for public security
purposes, and with 9/11, that was accelerated.
More recently, about eight to 10 years ago, we
had customers starting to ask us about public health. It was really the Ebola
crisis that brought it to a point where that accelerated and customers started
saying, “Can I find out if someone coming to my country has been anywhere near West
Africa?” And yes, our systems can do that.
So we were pretty well-positioned when all this
[COVID] happened to say actually we can understand the travel history of
individuals and their intention to travel, and also aspects related to their
potential health risk.
SITA uses name-matching technology from Basis
Technology. Tell us more about how that functions in relation to tracing COVID
What public health authorities want to know is,
if I’ve got these 10 cases in the last two days that have emerged in my country ... what do we know about their travel history? Have they recently arrived, did
they arrive less recently, have they been other places previously to that? What
we can do in the solution is take a list of people and quickly find any matches
with individuals who’ve traveled recently or in the distant past even.
The public health information is often the
first contact - it’s what people write down when they are in a traumatic
situation to tell you who they are entering a hospital. They might be in
distress ... so there’s lots of inaccuracies or potential issues. Basis is one
of the tools we use to offer up those different sets of data and say in the
likelihood of probability, here’s the matches of people who’ve presented at the
hospital with people who’ve traveled.
We can match and say with 90% probability this is
the person who traveled compared to that person who has appeared at the
hospital. We do it all the time in a security situation.
A government department who might be in charge
of national policing will have a record of an individual, and it may be a scrap
of paper they picked up that they corroborated with some witness, so they have
some aspect of a name and some aspect of nationality. And in the passenger data
for the travel history we have absolutely guaranteed document number, first
name, last name, nationality. So we’re always matching these different data
sets together to give an alert, to give a view to a criminality officer. So
bringing in a different set of data like public health data and using that
instead is really no different.
And then you are also able to drill down to identify
people that may have come in contact with an infected person during a journey?
We’ve already been looking at networking
relationships, social distancing type issues because of criminality. You can
imagine for example for a people trafficking case, what you will find is there
will be a trafficker on the same flight as the people he is trafficking. And
those people will be in a group together, so they are easy to control, but the
trafficker won’t be with them. You can pick up on patterns based on seating,
which might reveal what’s going on.
We need to think about that web of multi-lateral confidence, and that’s what I think this brings.
Peter Sutcliffe - SITA
We’re already developing some of these
things for criminality reasons, but of course for the public health issues that
have come out, we’ve accelerated that because it’s obviously very important now
to know that if someone who tested positively for COVID arrived in the country,
who were the people sitting around that person.
Based on the airline configuration, who was the
person across the aisle, was there a bulkhead and therefore the person in front
of them is not going to be affected but the person behind could be. So creating
that kind of heat map of exposure on the aircraft to identify people who’ve
been close to each other for a long period of time.
We’re not just looking at the flight where I
took a tourism journey to Spain for example, but if I maybe came from the U.S.
to the U.K. to Spain, who was I sitting next to on the flight from the U.S. to
the U.K., because still I’ve been exposed to people there. It’s looking at
their travel history more broadly and saying who has that person been socially
close to in their travel history in the last 14 days.
Since the COVID-19 crisis began, have you seen
an increase in interest in using border management technology for public health?
Although we had a couple of inquiries during
the Ebola crisis - and some of our customers are using it in that way in the
background - it has not been something
we’ve marketed and it’s not been something that was broadly taken up. But now
it’s something that they are coming to the party and wanting to do systematically.
Health organizations, health departments are
coming to us looking to gather more and more information about passengers ... saying
we need to know more about travelers in advance, we need to get their contact
This is something immigration and crime
agencies have been doing for a while as well, so the industry has been pushing
for electronic travel authorization. And travel authorization as a product is
something that was invented 20 odd years ago, and it’s something that has
always been of interest to governments to say I want to ask questions of
certain individuals before they take flight or before they travel.
Now health departments are coming and asking
the same sorts of questions.
So with this travel authorization
component, the data can be used to stop an infected person from traveling at all?
Yes, where it really gets interesting
is where you can stop that passenger from getting on an aircraft if they didn’t
fulfill your risk profile. A lot of solutions out there are just gathering data
and then the people travel anyway, and so when there’s a problem you can find
them - great.
But where the power really comes in is – our
solutions - when you check in for your flight we can check all those boxes and
say did you submit your information about your health in the past? If you
needed a health certificate, did you supply it? If the government had to check
that before you depart, did they check that and give you an ok to board? Are
you on a government watch list? And if any of those are crosses, you are not
allowed to get on the aircraft in the first place.
If someone with a health risk gets on the
airplane, they might already infect people on the airplane. Then they get to
the country and they’ve infected people at that airport, and you have to deal
with all of that.
Even more than that, if you can stop them
before they check in, you can stop them from leaving their house, stop them
from getting in a taxi, so you can stop the spread of it in your own country by
stopping people from checking in for those flights in the first place.
So that APP - advanced passenger processing – linked
with this kind of gathering of data is really the unique thing that SITA does
which stops the health risk issues from getting out of home.
What are the privacy challenges for tools like
this since it is dealing with personal health information?
I think the major challenge comes with those
industry players who are a bit more immature in this market and don’t perhaps
understand how to go about things. So lots of people are proposing solutions in
the marketplace about collecting health data, and this is very sensitive.
one thing to collect passport data – which is something you have to give anyway
to travel - but to collect “Have you been to a hospital in the last 24 hours? Are
you showing symptoms?” People are very sensitive about this.
We have always operated in a way that we are
providing information to the responsible authority. We are not holding onto the
information. We are not gathering information. We are providing it to the
government. And in some cases we are providing the system the government has to
store that information and process it. And we are making sure we are providing
the tools and technology that allows them to meet the European Union’s GDPR [rules]
and other privacy constraints they need to meet.
If you look ahead to the next six or 12 months, what do you see happening in this arena?
There are lots of paper-based declaration
things happening at the moment, but it’s really going to be very difficult for
countries to prolong those. They are not going to be able to keep those going
for a long time in the face of potential second waves and other viruses in the
It’s going to have to be electronic. And I
think we’ll see a lot more websites and mobile apps which are tied to
government systems in order to get this health information. We’ll see a standardization
of those things and a standardization of health certificates too.
At the moment there is no standard test result
that I can upload that can be electronically checked such that a system can say
that test result is okay and it’s valid, and it has not been forged. But I
think we’ll see much more of that, whether it’s the WHO or the United Nations
or whoever who is consolidating that, to have a better certification approach
that can be accessed by providers.
Then I think we’ll see an acceleration of
interactive API, an acceleration of APP, so this policing mechanism that says I
want to stop you from checking in for your flight, I want to stop you from even
starting your journey.
Ultimately could solutions like this enable
countries to better manage outbreaks and border rules in the future?
We’ve got to bear in mind that prosperity and
global wealth is really predicated on open borders and people being able to fly.
Putting in place these kinds of mechanisms is something that is necessary in
order for us to keep borders open and to keep people being able to travel
freely and easily at low cost. We need to think about that web of multi-lateral
confidence, and that’s what I think this brings.
We can set up this quid pro quo kind of
relationship where we are sending healthy people to you, and you are sending
healthy people to us. We generate that trust, and that enables us to keep these
The more electronic systems we can put in place
to understand that, the more when something happens, we can dynamically and
What we saw in this situation was everything
closed down, because only those countries that had an APP system could
gradually adapt and respond, let their nationals come back in, let flights take
off gradually. Everyone else had to just close the borders.
So as we get APP systems more around the world,
we’ll see more and more countries have this trust and they can say ok you’ve
got an issue, tell us about it early and we’ll adjust and stop your travelers
from coming to our country, but we’ll allow movement from these other places. And
that makes a much more configurable travel ecosystem.