Online Identity Verification in the Airline Industry

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To say that the COVID-19 pandemic was devastating for the entire airline industry would be a huge understatement. The sheer extent of the impact on airlines by the coronavirus in 2020-21 was outlined in a report issued by the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in May 2022.

In 2020 alone, there was an overall 60% reduction in passenger numbers, equating to 2.73-billion less passenger tickets being issued. Previous major events such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the 2008 financial crisis are mere blips when compared to the immense impact of COVID-19.

The airline industry may have seen some upturn in 2022 but, for most carriers, passenger numbers have yet to reach pre-pandemic levels. Airlines therefore need to be more innovative than ever before regarding how they attract and, importantly, maintain passengers as loyal brand ambassadors. The huge oil price hikes in 2022 due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict have only further squeezed the embattled industry, thereby heightening even more the need for innovative ways of capturing passengers.

An excellent way of achieving this needed innovation, short of slashing ticket fares, which is unsustainable for airlines, is by offering online identity verification for passengers. However, only the best of this software will do, given the many security-related demands placed on airlines regarding passenger identities.

The benefits of online identity verification to passengers

There are multiple benefits for passengers when doing online identity verification, probably the most enticing of which is being able to forego having to do check-in at a counter in the airport. Let’s face it: most airports have become horrific places of stress and heaving masses in recent years. This has been due to (1) far tighter security checks and protocols since 9/11, including for domestic travel (2) significant rises in passenger numbers, thanks to the proliferation of low-cost budget carriers and greater mobility of many people worldwide, particularly from developing, non-OECD countries and (3) many legacy airports that are struggling to cope with greater passenger numbers.

Therefore, the ability to avoid the hassle of long queues and tedious waits just to check-in is undoubtedly very appealing for many passengers, particularly for those who are already comfortable doing digital/online purchases.

The benefits of online identity verification for airlines

By making remote, digital check-in more efficient, airlines can cut costs by needing less ground crew at check-in counters. Traditional check-in models have usually allocated personnel at check-in desks for three hours per flight. Having personnel so ‘static’ for such extended periods of time is an expensive operating cost for airlines. Attrition with irate passengers is also an infamous consequence of forcing all passengers to stand in long queues to check-in, particularly during holiday or other busy periods.

Happier passengers who don’t have to stand in queues just to check-in should mean passengers who are more likely to become repeat customers for an airline.

Equally importantly, airlines will be more adept at countering online e-commerce fraud by enabling safer and more efficient online verification options. Standard two-step online identification, i.e. in which a user’s online selfie is compared to their scanned national identity document, has become increasingly sophisticated courtesy of artificial intelligence (AI)-embedded software, coupled with machine learning (ML) and biometrics inputs. This software is capable of doing facial verifications far quicker and more effectively than any human can.

In its May 2021 assessment regarding the benefits of online identity verification, Forbes noted how it can also be used by airlines to have an additional layer of protection for online ticket and package purchases, as well as shield frequent flyer programs, which have been quite easily hacked in recent years.

What online identity verification software must offer

There is a solid rule of thumb that online ID software must match: passengers today, like all digital users, expect both more and less of their digital interactions. They expect more in terms of ease of remote check-in, not to mention sophisticated yet simple verification of their identity. Conversely, these same users expect less in terms of time it takes to do the online check-in and verification process. They certainly expect (read: demand) less hassle and being able to avoid multiple attempts just to verify an online selfie or passport scan, for example.

Airlines must also comply to highly stringent pre-boarding security checks, as imposed by national anti-terrorism agencies and aviation authorities. They cannot afford to run afoul of these security measures, both for the safety and security of all their passengers and crew, as well as the high penalties that can be incurred due to security lapses. Furthermore, airlines must also ensure that passenger data is secure, or risk stiff penalties. In 2020, British Airways was fined £20-million by the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) for having allowed the security breach of more than 400,000 customers.

Critically, this AI-enhanced ID verification software can increasingly differentiate between the wide range of national documents available for online or remote verification purposes worldwide. These national documents vary significantly between countries regarding their layout and size, not to mention unique security features they might use, including holograms, logos, watermarks and micro-printed data.

Online identity verification has not only arrived, it is set to grow exponentially in the near future. However, this growing form of verification needs to be as uncomplicated and quick for passengers as possible, whilst retaining the important security-related features for airlines without becoming a passenger data management nightmare for them. Bottom line: online identity verification needs to work for passengers and airlines alike. Increasingly, the technology is keeping pace with those expectations.

June 3, 2022

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