Digital credentials to transform travel
Sumesh Patel, President of SITA Asia Pacific, has witnessed firsthand the remarkable evolution of airline and airport technologies over his three decades with the company. His enthusiasm for the field remains as fervent as it was when he began his career as a field engineer, and he is particularly excited about the transformative potential of digital travel credentials (DTCs).
Patel emphasizes that the consumer is now driving innovation in the travel industry, unlike in the past when technology was primarily focused on operational efficiencies. This shift was accelerated by the pandemic, which spurred unprecedented consumer adoption of technology across all aspects of life and business.
“Everything we do now is centered on the end consumer, with the ultimate goal of improving efficiencies for airlines and airports,” says Patel. “For instance, when evaluating a new technology, we consider its impact not just on airlines and airports in isolation but also across the entire travel journey, ensuring a seamless experience for passengers and giving them greater control over their mobile devices.”
Patel’s extensive tenure at SITA, a 75-year-old organization founded in 1949 by 11 airlines seeking IT support, has been marked by continuous change. “Some might wonder why I’ve stayed with the same company for 30 years, but I’ve always been given new roles with little overlap, ensuring a constant learning curve,” he explains.
From his initial role as a field engineer, he has held positions in procurement, site facilities, sales, and communications. “There was always career progression and ample opportunity to learn new things.”
Today, SITA boasts 410 members, including airports, all of whom are shareholders in the organization. “Our unique value proposition lies in our ownership by the industry, enabling us to focus directly on addressing their business challenges,” Patel explains. “This differentiates us from other travel technology companies. We are commercially driven and profitable, and our innovations are specifically tailored to industry challenges. Additionally, we collaborate with other industry bodies to establish standards.”
Patel highlights that the pandemic also fostered a spirit of collaboration within the travel industry. “Airlines, airports, and governments are cooperating better than ever before,” he observes. “During the pandemic, we were equally impacted as airlines and airports, and we worked closely with various stakeholders to aid the industry’s recovery and restore passenger confidence through technological advancements.”
“Our mission was to safeguard our investments, facilitate industry recovery, and leverage existing investments to prepare for the post-COVID era,” Patel explains. “We had to prioritize touchless interactions and biometrics. Instead of constructing new kiosks, we integrated cameras into existing counters, demonstrating our ability to adapt and integrate technology seamlessly.”
“The diverse health pass schemes implemented by various countries caused significant anxiety among travelers,” Patel recalls. “To address this, we developed a platform that facilitates interoperability between different travel passes.”
“I believe a key lesson from the pandemic is the need for enhanced collaboration,” Patel emphasizes. “Previously, airlines and airports operated in silos, which could have been improved.”
With this lesson learned and a more open-minded approach to collaboration, Patel is particularly excited about the potential of biometrics to streamline the travel experience.
“Biometrics can now be utilized across the entire travel journey, from airline reservations to airport check-in, immigration and customs, and boarding,” Patel explains. “In Beijing Airport, 600 biometric touchpoints have been implemented, and we conducted trials on British Airways flights, where 400 passengers boarded in just 20 minutes. Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines are also adopting this system, and we have completed the implementation of biometric check-in, baggage handling, and boarding at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok.”
Patel reveals that five more AOT airports in Thailand and four airports in India will soon implement biometric systems. “Globally, 50% of airports aim to be biometric-enabled by 2025,” he adds, noting SITA’s active presence in over 1,000 airports worldwide.
“The technology has been available for some time, and different airports are at varying stages of adoption,” Patel explains. “The decision to enable biometric touchpoints lies with individual airports, and these touchpoints can be implemented at various stages, such as duty-free shopping or lounge access. However, it is evident that consumers increasingly demand convenience.”
SITA’s 2023 Passenger Insights study highlights five key findings:
Over 50% of travelers have experienced disruptions, causing booking anxiety for nearly one-third of them. Passengers are embracing technology for smoother journeys, with mobile devices serving multiple purposes, from booking to onboard engagement. The growing adoption of biometric identification underscores the demand for seamless airport experiences. Sustainability takes center stage. Passengers recognize smart technologies as key to streamlining travel while reducing its environmental impacts. Intermodal