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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 (IATA) 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 Europe, 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 ten 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
PhocusWire: SITA uses name-matching technology from
Basis Technology. Tell us more about how that functions in relation to tracing
Sutcliffe: What public health authorities want to
know is, if I've got these ten 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 travelled recently or in the distant
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 travelled.
We can match and say with 90 per cent probability this is
the person who travelled 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
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 US to the UK to
Spain, who was I sitting next to on the flight from the US to the UK, 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
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 organisations, health departments are coming to us
looking to gather more and more information about passengers... saying we need
to know more about travellers 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 authorisation. And travel authorisation 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
PhocusWire: So with this travel authorisation
component, the data can be used to stop an infected person from traveling at
Sutcliffe: Yes, where it really gets interesting is
where you can stop that passenger from getting on an aircraft if they didn't
fulfil 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 okay 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
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
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 standardisation of those things and
a standardisation 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
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
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 okay you've got an issue,
tell us about it early and we'll adjust and stop your travellers from coming to
our country, but we'll allow movement from these other places. And that makes a
much more configurable travel ecosystem.