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SITA's Peter Sutcliffe talks:
Now several 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. The International Air Transport Association predicts global passenger traffic 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. Technology can 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. Mitra Sorrells, senior reporter at PhocusWire—which, like BTN, is owned by Northstar Travel Group—talked to SITA portfolio director for border management Peter Sutcliffe to learn more. This interview originally was published by PhocusWire. The conversation has been edited slightly for brevity.
PhocusWire: SITA has had border management technology for quite some time. Can you give us a bit of that history?
Peter Sutcliffe: 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.
PhocusWire: SITA uses name-matching technology from Basis Technology. Tell us more about how that functions in relation to tracing Covid cases.
Sutcliffe: 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 percent 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.
PhocusWire: 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?
Sutcliffe: 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'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.
PhocusWire: Since the Covid-19 crisis began, have you seen an increase in interest in using border management technology for public health?
Sutcliffe: 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 information.
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.
PhocusWire: So with this travel authorization component, the data can be used to stop an infected person from traveling at all?
Sutcliffe: 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.
PhocusWire: What are the privacy challenges for tools like this, since it is dealing with personal health information?
Sutcliffe: 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.
It's 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.
PhocusWire: If you look ahead to the next six or 12 months, what do you see happening in this arena?
Sutcliffe: 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 future.
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.
PhocusWire: Ultimately could solutions like this enable countries to better manage outbreaks and border rules in the future?
Sutcliffe: 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 borders open.
The more electronic systems we can put in place to understand that, the more when something happens, we can dynamically and carefully adjust.
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.
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