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Unleashing the potential of digital borders

By  Brussels,

Abolishing border checks and the seamless travel between member states is one of the greatest achievements of the EU. However, for anyone who travels outside the EU, they’ll quickly become acquainted with how it used to be; long queues of passengers snaking their way around an airport concourse waiting to get their passport checked by border guards. Given how digital many aspects of our lives have become, a border guard manually flicking through our passport and stamping it seems positively antiquated. But all is not lost. Governments are increasingly turning to digital solutions to make the process more efficient. On top this, digitalisation also offers an opportunity to make borders more secure.

In recent years, the use of biometric passports has significantly changed the passenger experience, most visibly through the deployment of automatic passport machines. This has been coupled with the ever-increasing use of passenger data by authorities. However, these initiatives pale in comparison to the forthcoming proposal for the digitalisation of travel documents and travel facilitation currently being prepared by the European Commission.

This initiative aims to lay out a common format for digital travel documents in Europe which would serve as an alternative to the physical travel documents we are so used to such as passports and identity cards. This would represent a major overhaul of how Europeans travel and make border security much more efficient. However, for this massive potential to be realised the proposal needs to get a couple of things right.

Firstly, there must be a single format for digital travel documents for all European Member States. Some might recall how ID cards in the EU used to come in all shapes, sizes and formats. The EU implemented a regulation to standardise their format in 2019. A similar approach is needed for their digital cousins. Otherwise, there is a risk that different member states will take differing approaches and use different standards. This is a recipe for inefficiency and additional burdens for passengers, airlines and border control authorities. It would be like city transport system using different ticketing or contact payment systems for each individual line. Digitalisation of travel must be done in a consistent and unified manner.

It is equally important that the European standards that are adopted for this new documentation adhere to international standards on digital travel documents, namely ICAO Digital Travel Credentials (ICAO DTC). Aviation is by its very nature a deeply international sector and aligning with ICAO DTC standards would ensure the global interoperability of Europe’s digital travel documents. The last thing we would want is for a European traveller to turn up across the Ocean and be denied entry to a country simply because their documents are incompatible with the system being used in their country of arrival.

We can already learn a lot from the launch of previous digital tools for border management. The current plethora of different passenger data/registration legislation (API/PNR/EES/ETIAS) has unfortunately resulted in operational inefficiencies and costs for carriers due to duplications. If we are to achieve truly seamless and secure borders in the EU, EU border management legislation needs to be a single set of rules that are seamless and efficient.

Another key learning from current legislation is that travel authorisation should be digitally obtained by passengers directly from governments. As it stands, airlines effectively act as information brokers between passengers and state authorities. Routing passengers directly to governments would effectively prevent/limit the disclosure of sensitive personal data to airlines. And while airlines will of course work with those national authorities in supporting the roll out of digital border solutions, this would also mean that travel authorisation and border control fully rests with the authorities who are ultimately responsible for it.

Finally, European citizens must retain full control over what data they choose to share. The data shared should be limited to what is strictly necessary to help alleviate potential data protection concerns. As the EU works towards an ambition to become a world leader in data protection, ensuring sufficient safeguards for passenger data will be just as important as for the data generated by apps and websites. Europeans should also be free to decide whether to use digital or physical travel documents, a critical point to guarantee that citizens with lower digital skills remain able to travel without hurdles.

Digitalising travel documents will improve the passenger experience, improve operational efficiency, while also reinforcing European border security. It’s an opportunity too good for the EU to pass up.