Use data more effectively and the airport queues would be shorter
The recent lengthy queues at immigration desks at some of the UK's major airports have highlighted the difficulties of managing the challenge of increasing global mobility and the annual growth in air traffic of 5 per cent a year.
Passenger numbers are projected to increase, with more than 230 million people expected to travel through the UK's airports by 2015. As a result, the pressure on border authorities to balance security with a good passenger experience and to show the UK as efficient and open for business will inevitably grow. This challenge, of course, does not just apply to the UK; it applies in equal measure in immigration facilities around the world, and a radical response is required.
One of the main causes is an over-reliance of conventional controls placed on the processing of passengers by immigration officers when they enter the country. This often leads to significant bottlenecks, with delays that frustrate passengers and airlines as over-stretched and under-resourced staff seek to process passengers in physical spaces that were not designed for today's passenger volumes. There simply must be a better way which centres on speeding up processing without compromising national security.
Options such as automated gates have been employed for a number of years, but with varying degrees of success. Gates that check fingerprints, or perform iris scans and facial recognition are in daily use around the world and promise to provide assured identity and document checks. While these advances represent a significant step forward, they do not in themselves address the underlying issue of control at point of entry.
Electronic clearance through automated gates does improve efficiency and enhances the passenger experience but it does not solve the problem of high volumes of people arriving at the same time. Instead, authorities need to look at more imaginative solutions that use passenger data to clear and screen passengers before they arrive at the airport, permitting them to pass through appropriate controls once they land.
Travellers already provide a great deal of data about themselves and their journey at different points before departure. From the outset, they supply key information as part of passport and visa applications . This basic identity and biographic information is increasingly being strengthened through the collection and linking of the passport or visa to biometric data, fingerprints, facial images or iris scans. In addition, individuals increasingly provide further information to the airline through advanced passenger information when they reserve their ticket and then, at check-in, creating an assured picture of individual and travel plans.
Consolidating this data and making it routinely available to immigration authorities as soon as it is collected will enable them to carry out effective profiling and pre-clearance of travellers. Authorities will be able to use this data to identify in advance any potential risks to public safety, national security or association with criminal activity.
Effective and timely sharing of this data also means airport and border control authorities have real time access to information on flight volumes. Linking this to airport information on arrival gates, time from gate to controls and the nationality of those on board will enable the dynamic management of resources and assure an effective and fast-moving airport operation.
Further advances, linking this data to biometric technologies could allow passengers to be cleared while they pass through the airport. Identity could be confirmed using live facial recognition technologies linked to passenger manifests and biometric data collected from passports or visa records. That would mean that the only people who need to be cleared by immigration officers would be those for whom such data was not available or accessible. This would dramatically reduce the time taken to process passengers without reducing the requirement for 100 per cent checks.
For many types of traveller, immigration control would involve them approaching a one-way barrier. If their identity was confirmed they would simply pass through the control. Anyone whose identity was not confirmed or whose profile or identity had been flagged as a risk would be blocked and subject to further checks.
For this approach to work successfully, available data will need to be shared and used more extensively and effectively. The UK's e-Borders initiative provides a perfect way to develop this option by consolidating and utilising the data it collects to facilitate pre-clearance. This will not only provide enhanced security but also create a more flexible and responsive border operation tailored to risk. In turn, it should help reduce the queues at the UK's big airports to the benefit of both travellers and the broader economy and ensure that airports and immigration authorities can manage future growth in passenger numbers.
Paul Ellis is an immigration and borders expert at PA Consulting Group.
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