Digital border management can enable rapid contact tracing


Jeremy Springall | Vice-President | Border Management | SITA | mail me | 

As air travel gradually starts to recover and country borders begin to open again, health and safety remain at the heart of efforts to get more passengers in the air and to keep borders open.

Airlines and industry bodies have called for the integration of systematic testing into the international travel process.

Passengers are also getting behind the idea, with 84% agreeing that testing should be required of all travellers, and 88% saying that they’re willing to undergo testing as part of the travel process, according to a recent IATA public poll.

However, this measure is only truly effective when paired with rapid contact tracing. Contact tracing aims to identify any passengers who may have been exposed to the COVID-19 virus during their travel.

It showed great potential during Africa’s Ebola outbreak between 2014 and 2016, and the SARS outbreak of 2002, when governments began showing interest in identifying where incoming travellers had been.

The effectiveness of contact tracing

The modern solutions available to airports and border control points can help to make this an even better tool in the effort to keep citizens safe.

The effectiveness of contact tracing, according to ‘The Lancet’ medical journal, depends entirely on rapidly finding people who may have become infected, to halt any further spread. It demands fast collaboration between border and health authorities, along with significant resources. And it needs to be supported by quick and accurate testing.

Governments around the world are struggling to ramp up these resources. Experts have estimated that governments should hire one contact tracer for every 5,000 inhabitants.

It’s been a familiar story globally as governments recruit civilian armies of contact tracers to grapple with the task of swiftly identifying and prioritizing people who may be infected, including their travel and recent daily activities.

Sophisticated border management systems can give contact tracers the crucial information they need in seconds, overcoming the shortfalls of other methods in play today.

Advance passenger information is key

We need to remember that countries already have a wealth of digital information collected by law, in the form of Advance Passenger Information (API), or interactive API, and Passenger Name Record (PNR) data. These provide key answers for contact tracers, with the help of some cross-agency collaboration.

Well established globally, API and PNR include information such as the full identity of each passenger, their flight itinerary, baggage, seating information, and contact details. The combination of these data sources provides great value.

A sophisticated border management system will enable governments and health authorities to answer essential questions in support of contact tracing for travel, such as their travel history, recent flights, who was traveling with them, who was within two seats of them, and contact details.

Tracing at speed

With our system, for instance, authorised users can search hundreds of passengers at once, in seconds, supported by intelligent name matching to identify slight variations in names.

This is made possible by name-matching and artificial intelligence technology, no matter what the language, be it Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic script, Greek, Hungarian, or any other.

Medical patient names can then be matched against traveller names. Armed with the information they need – gathered at speed, with great accuracy, and with a view on immediate priorities – contact tracers can then quickly embark on outreach activities to contain the spread of the virus.

If we’re going to keep borders open and get people flying again, to enable economic recovery, then it’s vital that governments’ border and health agencies have access to this level of passenger information now, in a standard digital way wherever they may be in the world.



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