BACK IN 2015, after building the landmark airport terminal, the team at Bangalore Airport International Ltd. (BIAL) was looking at ways to improve convenience for fliers, the airport’s mainstay. How could the experience be made better, more seamless, and less stressful?

Several ideas were put forth, but one stuck. Suresh Khadakbhavi, who was then part of the airport’s technology team, suggested a biometrics-based contactless boarding experience for fliers, without any hassle of pulling out identity cards at different entry points.

Right from balancing one’s luggage while pulling out the boarding pass or phone or Aadhaar at different check points, to keeping the boarding card safe (not crumpled or lost if one has a physical one in hand!), procedures at every stage were time-consuming and cumbersome for fliers. Furthermore, depending on the threat perception at the time or the day or the city, multiple checks were introduced, sometimes even just before stepping onto the aircraft, leading to much annoyance for fliers.

The question Khadakbhavi’s paper posed was whether things can be improved and done in a manner where one could just walk through with virtually no touch points, in full safety and security, to make things more efficient and less troublesome for all.

That was when the idea of Digi Yatra — a contactless process that uses facial recognition to provide a seamless travel experience for domestic passengers — was mooted. With the help of a few biometrics OEMs, an experiment was carried out by the BIAL team with Jet Airways at the terminal for an end-to-end journey experience based on facial recognition, practically contactless, especially for those carrying only hand luggage. Feedback from passengers was video recorded. Most wanted this scaled up across airports.

It was after the first experiment that the idea began to crystallise, endorsed by the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MOCA), the Airports Authority of India (AAI), private airports and all security bodies involved, including CISF. Aadhaar architect Pramod Verma was pulled in, and so was Nandan Nilekani, who had been the chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India. Among other things, it was felt that with the expected growth in India’s GDP, and consequent increase in traffic, the solution lies in more efficient and well-oiled terminals rather than building bigger ones to accommodate passengers. Larger terminals meant additional spending by developers, eventually translating into more expensive airports for both airlines and passengers. If India had to develop its airports into hubs — a much-talked about plan that remains in the works — it had no option but to try and make better use of infrastructure, and Digi Yatra was an initiative that could help. Moreover, foreign airlines considered Indian private airports expensive compared to others. Keeping costs low was important from all viewpoints.

Early Days: Hiccups And Hurdles

With the help of then civil aviation minister Jayant Sinha and MOCA officials, brainstorming sessions were held through 2017 and 2018. Questions arose as the idea gained ground. To begin with, in an era of trust deficits, data manipulation and growing privacy concerns, how does one ensure that citizens are willing to try something like this? It was a question that the team was grappling with.

The second issue that came up was who would build the app and be responsible for ensuring a smooth rollout across India? Was AAI up to the task or should it be a new entity in charge? How does one bring so many agencies — private airports, AAI airports and others on board? Also, how does one finance an initiative like this, including a countrywide rollout?

That’s when Nilekani suggested they adopt the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) model and set up a for-profit company, which in the case of NHAI collects tolls, builds new highways and monitors existing ones. Similarly, a new not-for-profit entity with representations of all stakeholders could be created with participation of both AAI and private airports to provide a hassle-free service for passengers. That’s how the Digi Yatra Foundation was set up in 2019 with 26% stake held by AAI and 76% divided between five PPP airports — DIAL, MIAL, BIAL, Hyderabad and Cochin. The initial capital was provided by these shareholders. With the app’s growing acceptance, officials expect per passenger usage charge to be applicable in due course, paid for by operators.

Even as things were hotting up, the pandemic hit and air travel halted abruptly. However, the idea was revived soon, with “risk-free travel” gaining predominance. “There are so many points at which the virus can travel with physical boarding passes; at the entry gates, check-ins, security,” says Khadabhavi, subsequently appointed the CEO of the foundation.

Up, Up And Away

Making India one of the earliest movers in the space, Digi Yatra was launched by MOCA at Bengaluru, Varanasi, and Delhi in December 2022 and expanded to other airports in 2023. As of April 2024, the app and service is available at 14 airports, including Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Vijayawada, Pune, and Ahmedabad, based on traffic numbers. It is being expanded to another 14 airports, bringing the total count to 28.

Adoption has been robust. Till a few weeks ago, Digi Yatra had been used 19 million times by 4.5 million users. Adoption has been highest at Delhi airport (5.33 million times), followed by Bangalore (5.18 million). With domestic travellers crossing 150 million, 4.5 million is a drop in the ocean, say MOCA sources. “This constitutes a small cohort of frequent fliers. There’s a long way to go.”

The Positives

Anu Ahuja, a fashion show director based out of Bengaluru who takes at least six to eight flights every month, compares Digi Yatra to the fast tag system adopted for toll collection. “It has identified the pain points, is hassle free, and saves lots of time. There are problems but it’s made life easier.” According to calculations by the foundation, Digi Yatra has reduced airport entry time from 15-20 seconds to under-5 seconds for a passenger. For manual queues, the waiting time, if there are 10 passengers ahead, is down from 200-plus seconds to less than 50 seconds.

But there are concerns as well. “What happens when everyone is on it,” questions another frequent flier. He argues the app and service might, in time, become superfluous in cities such as Bengaluru, since at times the Digi Yatra queue seems more daunting than the regular!

Officials say even if the lines are long, they move quicker. Assuming both queues have the same number of people, the Digi Yatra queue will clear faster. “Moreover, you don’t run the risk of losing your Aadhaar or driving license (a fairly common occurrence at airports),” they add.

Privacy Concerns

In an era where privacy concerns are paramount globally, fliers are wary of sharing any information, including details such as travel destination. This cohort argues that governments globally have been intruding into the privacy of citizens, moving uncomfortably towards a surveillance state. This segment might never adopt the service and argues that “if it is free, you are the product”.

Former NASSCOM employee and cyber expert Prasanto K. Roy says Digi Yatra has all the issues of digital public interface platforms, “privately run with no or little accountability, mostly not subject to the Right to Information Act.”

MOCA sources, however, argue the skepticism around Digi Yatra is mainly due to a recent scandal that broke out in April involving the private company that initially built the app for the foundation. DataEvolve’s CEO was arrested and Digi Yatra asked users to redownload the app, which did not go down well with many. In some ways, the effort will have to be replicated and rebooted, which in today’s era of mistrust and misinformation is a task in itself.

The Global Push

Although India has moved faster and is a bit ahead in this journey, several countries and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) have been working on initiatives to make air travel health risk free and more efficient.

IATA has been campaigning for the One ID initiative and has produced a document which aims to streamline passenger journey with advance sharing of information and a contactless process at the airport based on biometric-enabled identification. By obtaining all necessary authorisations and demonstrating admissibility to travel prior to departure, passengers will be ‘ready to fly’ before they arrive at the airport.

An advisory committee was set up by IATA in 2015-16 and the Digi Yatra Foundation became a member in 2017. It is working on recommended practices just like the IATA 792 resolution for boarding passes, which specifies how the passes are structured and what information they carry globally. Similarly, the One ID initiative will define the standards for countries to adopt to contactless and biometric-based air travel. Although the initiative began pre-pandemic, it has gained momentum after the pandemic validated the need for contactless travel.

Experiments with biometric-based systems are ongoing in various parts of the world. Bhutan has rolled out an ecosystem and Sri Lanka is taking it up as well, in tie-up with some European partners and Indian start-ups. Singapore and West Asian countries are also at different stages of operationalisation. Some of them have sought assistance from the Digi Yatra Foundation as well. In Europe, adoption remains tardy but more recently, the European Union has begun work on the digital identity, which now has a EUDI framework, a toolkit and is allowing the same universal wallet standards and Hyperledger similar to India.

Khadakbhavi says while many countries are on the same page in thinking and trials and small experiments are on, most are “lagging behind India in roll-out and implementation as of now.”

“At scale and volume, we are the biggest implementers of self sovereign identity anywhere in the world as of now,” he adds.

London’s Heathrow airport is a favourite among fliers around the globe but they find immigration clearance a major pain point after a long-haul journey. Facial screening is expected to help ease the problem over time. It is expected that once IATA defines the norms and standards for contactless travel through the One ID resolution, countries would work out bilateral arrangements to share passenger information and processes even a few days before the arrival or entry into the country. “This would alleviate a major pain point for fliers, who often find themselves in long immigration queues after a flight, depending on the country and the time of arrival,” says a former Air India director.

Travellers might finally have something to celebrate.

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