12 JULY 2021


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Article from BTNews 12 JULY 2021

COMMENT: John Abbott, Chief Commercial Officer at digital identity network, Yoti

Yoti has been binding Covid-19 testing results to Virgin Atlantic crew to help keep things safely moving. Here John Abbott shares his key learning and insights into what is needed to get business travellers truly back on the move.

Collaboration essential for return to travel

“What a night! No doubt that there will be many sore heads across the country this morning. Regardless, the sight of 60,000 fans at Wembley will have got many people thinking about the nation’s social distancing measures. We all want to return to the norms enjoyed before the pandemic, such as sporting events and travel, but we equally know the pandemic is not yet over.

At the time of writing this, UK government statistics state that 3 in 5 (over 60%) UK adults have now received both doses of Covid-19 vaccine, and what with large scale events like the football back in action, you may be asking what are we waiting for in order for mass air travel to reopen?

Founded in 2014 and working with governments, financial services and the NHS, Yoti’s digital identity app has been used to issue health test results to the Virgin Atlantic team – helping them to lead the sector and instil some confidence back into flying. The technology was tried and tested for the challenge of accepting and sharing sensitive personal data, helping to make the process for Virgin secure, simple and protected people’s privacy – with vital anti-spoofing technology to prevent swaps and fraud.

However, delivering verified passenger testing and checks to open up travel on a global scale is a very different story. Technology is not the limiting factor. The ability for organisations to unite for globally accepted standards and interoperability is far from simple. This begins in the foundations of national health care systems and continues through to the processes used by every stakeholder in the journey.

While vaccination roll-out is moving fast here in the UK, the pace of delivery varies from country to country. There’s also the risk of new Covid-19 strains such as today’s Delta variant, which has seen international borders remain closed to UK travellers, or with prohibitive testing and quarantine processes.

The restarting of mass travel brings many challenges, especially in passenger processing. The additional checks and sharing of test results or vaccination status have restricted many automated processes at check-in and immigration, adding friction that isn’t sustainable for regular operating capacity. This might not be a temporary requirement either – mandatory API data requirements have continued since 11 September and we could see health certifications become mandatory.

This time, however, personal health data is significantly different to API data, which is standardised across the globe, derived from a government document, accessible and easily sharable with airlines. Health data collection varies significantly by country. Some hold it centrally by a governing body, private companies can also hold testing data. Accessing health records is not straight forward and there is no defined standard for the payload and data format which is crucial for both sharing and verification. A common set of standards for passengers, carriers and immigration authorities is essential and on a global scale.

Can these challenges be overcome?

The answer is yes, but it’s going to require collaboration and lots of it. First, individuals must be able to claim their health data and anchor that information to their identity. This functionality is already available in the market today (Yoti for example has 10m installs globally with more than 2.5m in the UK). With Virgin Atlantic, crew and pilots receive the result from their Covid-19 test, taken pre-flight, into the Yoti app where it is bound to their verified identity. This information can be shared with authorities upon arrival, where there is an option for the official to scan a QR code to check the verifiable proofs. As I mentioned earlier, the standard for this data format is still to be defined, which in turn affects the verification process and accepted standards.

Secondly, there’s sharing data (identity information coupled with the health data) with airlines and immigration authorities pre-travel. We have carried out publicised trials at Heathrow to provide booking information, make it private and secure to minimise the need to share information in the terminal, and leverage biometrics for secure retrieval of information and speed up boarding. This is key, as it is this step that will allow the self-service processes to be re-introduced, thus reducing key transaction times.

Why is this a challenge? First up, airlines do not wish to hold further sensitive data on its passengers, which health data falls into. They would rather make an audience call when a passenger uses a self-service kiosk – with a pass or fail returned for the necessary checks.

Next, in order to receive the data, airlines must integrate an API to their platforms to enable passengers to share the data from their app of choice; generally, there is no scope in the technical roadmap to do this quickly. Plus passengers need a third-party app, which takes them outside of the airlines’ journey that they control. But we have to get the relevant information into airline’s systems pre-travel and this needs to be addressed.

So, what’s the answer?  

As already stated, the tech exists today to solve these problems. While many bodies are working to define common standards for health data, achieving interoperability across the globe (including non-digital routes) is not easy.

There’s a huge amount of work to be done to get people flying again and resolutions can only be made by all stakeholders coming together. Time is of the essence. But as we have seen with the inspiring efforts of our health professionals and bodies, I have faith the travel industry will find a way.

John Abbott has been the Chief Commercial Officer at Yoti for the past four years where he is responsible for developing a trusted and global commercial business and consumer identity ecosystem. Prior to joining Yoti he was a senior management consultant with The Berkeley Partnership where he shaped, mobilised and delivered large scale, complex business transformations for FTSE100 clients. Abbott has also held the role of Central Government Management Consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and lead public-facing service operation turnarounds and improvement programmes across the Education and Welfare sub-sectors. Abbott has a BSc (Hons) in Natural Science, Business Information Systems, marketing, Mandarin Chinese, Biochemistry and Genetics.  


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