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The real reason why touchless travel is delayed at the gate


January 3, 2022

Explain this: My plane pulls into the gate at midnight, and I live 45 minutes away from the airport. Why, then, did I get home at 5:00 in the morning?

This is how my recent trip from Berlin to London went. Touchpoint after touchpoint, my journey was beset with long queues of confused travelers and staff finding their way through an array of fragmented apps and paper documents.

At the height of the pandemic, I wrote a post on how to get the world moving again through touchless travel. We have the technology to transform travel through digital credentials. So why is the experience still like this a year later, despite low volumes?

Because the global adoption of digital credentials in travel is not a technology problem—it’s an ecosystem one.

Collaboration: The new frontier

Make no mistake: The past two years haven’t been easy on anyone involved in travel, especially the industry. The commitments that airlines, airports and customs staff have had to make to manage safety and unprecedented disruption are nothing short of herculean.

And now, we find ourselves at another inflection point. The market is clearly in need, as people continue to put off travel on account of uncertainty: What papers do I need? What does the timing have to be like? Will they be accepted? And how long will I have to wait for all this?

To truly reinvigorate travel and tourism, the industry knows it must deliver a unified experience focused on ease, convenience and confidence. How do we get there? With greater government and private sector collaboration. If the ecosystem can come together to share, accept and trust credentials in advance, the seamless, touchless, queueless journey is possible.

The global adoption of digital credentials in travel is not a technology problem—it’s an ecosystem one.

Let’s take a closer look at the challenges hindering recovery to understand why collaboration is the answer.

The return of paper takes its toll on customer experience, efficiency and trust 

Just as the industry was transitioning to digital, pandemic protocols brought us back to paper. Innovations like biometric gates and touchless re-entry were put on the back burner as document checkpoints multiplied from check-in to gates to arrivals. Airport processing times can now reach three hours, even though travel volumes are only about 30 percent of what they were before COVID-19. Modelling even suggests that number could reach eight hours. The long waiting time and queues would further discourage any non-essential travelers.

These delays are all rooted in ecosystem friction:

  • Ambiguity - A September 2021 survey from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) suggests that 73 percent of travelers found it challenging to understand which rules apply and arrange their COVID-19 paperwork.
  • More touchpoints - travelers are required to carry and present multiple, often paper-based, documents at various checkpoints, which can double airport processing time.
  • Fragmentation - Despite the surge of the digital passes and certificates, the ecosystem remains fragmented, lacking standards to provide interoperability across sectors and brands. For instance, I might use one app to provide test results, you may use another, and the check-in agent my not be familiar with either.
  • More on-site complications - Such passes and forms require manual QR code scans and can’t be shared and processed in advance, causing long queues and introducing even more physical touchpoints.

On the trust front, paper also leaves a lot to be desired:

Forgery - Counterfeit credentials (both paper and digital) are a growing problem. In the UK alone, the number of dark-web vendors selling fake COVID-19 test certificates increased from 20 in November of 2020 to more than 1,200 in March of 2021. 

Privacy - A March 2021 IATA poll showed that 84% of people would like an app to manage their travel credentials, suggesting they want more control over their data.

Not to mention the effort and cost of mitigating these issues: Many airports require full staffing levels to process as little as 10–15% of pre-COVID traveler numbers.

What it looks like in action

Here’s how some of these issues played out over my trip. If you’ve travelled recently, I’m sure you can relate.

  • Predeparture: I put in quite a bit of legwork researching which documents and apps I needed ahead of time. Then I joined the queue with my UK NHS COVID Pass and Passenger Locator Form ready to go on my phone.
  • Security and border: Because the NHS COVID Pass has yet to be fully recognized in the EU and linked to the Digital COVID Certificate (DCC) system, security checks were performed manually. The checkpoint queue moved slowly as people scrambled for their own forms, passports and test results, among other documents. Those who were confused about their destination requirements took even longer. At times, airline staff even took it upon themselves to sift through passenger phones to verify test results from disparate apps they hadn’t seen before. 
  • Re-entry: After landing close to midnight, border checks took longer than ever. Officials once again needed to manually verify my NHS COVID Pass, and manual checks take even longer with exhausted travelers and border officers working the night shift—I spent more than two hours queuing in an extremely crowded space. 
  • Commute: With limited overnight options, I grabbed a taxi home and finally made it through the door at 5 a.m.

Now picture the above with touchless borders and the ability to share and process digital credentials in advance. How much better could my experience had been?


Travelers are required to carry and present multiple documents at various airport touchpoints, which can double airport processing time.

Collaboration does not kill competition

As solutions emerge to meet demand for trusted digital travel credentials, it’s important to acknowledge there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

From decentralised identity to centralised public key infrastructure (PKI)-based solutions, each approach has its own advantages and limitations, but they all have to and can work together. Different solutions with a common vision can coexist as long as organizations can trust each other's standards and formats to ensure interoperability.


of travelers would like to have an app to manage their travel credentials, in which they have full control over their data.

A blueprint from the Known Traveler Digital Identity initiative

A cross-border, public-private ecosystem for digital travel credentials has yet to be fully established, but we now have key lessons learned from a three-year cross-border multistakeholder initiative called The Known Traveler Digital Identity’s (KTDI).

Since 2018, KTDI has been exploring how emerging innovations can promote more efficient, secure and seamless travel against a backdrop of increasing volumes, security requirements and constraints on resources and infrastructure capacity. As the industry looks to establish trusted travel credentials that are interoperable, privacy-preserving and globally adopted across sectors, borders and travelers, the KTDI concept is now more relevant than ever.

Its latest paper, Accelerating the Transition to Digital Credentials for Travel, is the result of collaboration between Accenture, the World Economic Forum as well as industry and government partners. Designed as a playbook for policymakers and industry leaders to guide global public-private collaboration, the report features:

  • A summary of KTDI progress 
  • Three years worth of valuable learnings
  • A set of tried-and-true best practices

With this blueprint in hand and a roadmap for ecosystem development, the travel industry has a chance to lead the way to a more seamless, paperless, touchless and efficient experience for everyone, from booking to arrival.

Restoring trust in travel: The time to work together is now

The capabilities and the demand are here. It’s now time for governments and travel-sector partners to come together to bring digital credentials to market. In addition to boosting efficiency for airline and border staff, credentials will provide a more secure way of sharing and verifying information, giving travelers more assurance, shorter processing times and a lesser risk of exposure. Not only is industry-wide collaboration critical to establish governance, legal and regulatory frameworks, it’s essential for standardization and global consumer adoption.

What’s your perspective on this? Do you share a similar vision for the travelscape? If so, consider this your invitation to join us in shaping the future of seamless travel together.