Safer Passage

For years after 9/11, travelers have been subjected to inconvenient and ineffective “security theater.” Moving forward, traveling will actually get safer—and easier.


The year is 2038, and you’re walking through an arboretum that’s also growing greens for nearby restaurants. Your smart device notices your low blood sugar and suggests a lunch option—it’s soon hand-delivered to your park bench. A friend meets you for a coffee as you window-shop and enjoy a live concert projected onto a holo-imager, and then you walk down the jetway to board your flight.


Yes, you read that right. In the future, airports will refashion themselves as broader places of encounter and will no longer have sterile and nonsterile areas—it’s all free range. What’s more, because of ubiquitous scanners and cameras, you and every other passenger are being evaluated for security threats multiple times a minute, all as you go about your day.


After two decades of removing shoes and squeezing liquids into 3.4-ounce containers, we’ll no longer have to perform security theater; with the watchful eye of Big Brother becoming increasingly pervasive, we’ll no longer need convincing that we’re being watched. And most of us will be OK with it, because we’ll be willing to trade a certain degree of privacy for an even deeper sense of safety. 


Airlines, airports and governments alike will finally be ready to roll out security precautions that make travel safer—and at the same time more traveler-friendly— than ever before. But where is the limit? Exactly how much of our privacy do we need to relinquish in order to safeguard ourselves from, say, the next health crisis, cyber-Armageddon, political meltdown or act of terrorism?


“We’re in this space of trying to respond and prevent the events of yesterday, but we have the technology on our hands that can streamline the entire travel process.”

—Tim Jue, journalist and security expert


The Known Traveler Digital Identity (KTDI), a World Economic Forum initiative currently in a pilot program, allows individuals to manage their own profiles, collect digital “attestations” of their personal data secured via blockchain and decide what data to share and when. The more attestations a traveler accumulates and shares, the better the travel companies can provide a smooth and safe travel experience. Essentially, it’s the ultimate opt-in.


Airports with self-boarding gates using biometrics and travel documents:






Currently, the Singaporean government automatically snaps photos of each arriving passenger as part of a rigorous biometrics program—using biological identifiers such as face prints and iris scans to authenticate passengers’ identities. Many of these protocols and procedures were implemented in Southeast Asia following the SARS pandemic in 2003–2004. Now it’s the rest of the world’s turn to have its post-pandemic reckoning.

In the US—a late adapter relative to the rest of the world—Delta Air Lines and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) rolled out the country’s first “biometric terminal” inside Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in the fall of 2021. This made it possible for passengers to use facial recognition technology to minimize interactions with human gate agents from check-in to takeoff. These developments are only the beginning. Sixty-four percent of airports globally plan to roll out self-boarding gates using biometrics and ID documentation by 2023, three times as many as in 2020. In five years, ubiquitous tech and security protocols will blend biometrics with wearable technology such as watches, rings and other jewelry to expedite access even more.

While incorporating biometrics is a step forward in making travel safer, it also requires the forfeiture of personal data. Small-scale adoption is already on the rise with CLEAR and the TSA’s Known Traveler Program—private, opt-in programs allowing passengers to surrender their personal details for ease of passage. Widespread adoption will occur in five to 10 years when airports begin to mandate it—privacy hard-liners who wish to refrain from flying the invasively friendly skies will be forced to choose a different form of transportation.








As the air travel industry rebounds from the massive disruption wrought by Covid, it has an opportunity to reinvent its approach to terminal design. By shifting to mobile-driven solutions that allow passengers to arrive at the airport “ready to fly,” airports will no longer need to delineate between sterile and nonsterile areas. Instead, ubiquitous scanners will constantly check everything—passengers, bags, footwear, even liquids in full-size bottles—as travelers move unimpeded from the airport entrance all the way to their gate like a browsing shopper strolling through a mall. These changes will make airports “places of encounter”—we’ll even be allowed to walk loved ones to their gates again. We’ll be able to order food from our favorite eatery to be delivered gateside rather than relying on sterile-side airport concessionaires, since every person in the terminal will be checked by cameras and sensors at all times and processed remotely, regardless of whether they have a plane ticket.

A number of international destinations—especially in Asia—are already pushing airport construction in this new direction. The US, however, is dramatically behind in airport design, not to mention that the country still uses radar in its antiquated guidance system. Current rankings of the top 25 airports in the world include zero in the US; a recent study by Airports Council International found that US airports need nearly $130 billion in upgrades. If the US moves aggressively to modernize its airports, it could potentially catch up to the rest of the world by 2040.


Even before the Covid pandemic, sales of keyless entry systems were growing more than 10 percent a year. The push for contactless check-in and social distancing has only accelerated this trend. Digital keys far more sophisticated than today’s key cards are the future of access management in hotels.

With keyless check-in apps that exist today, hotel guests can make a beeline through the lobby and up to their penthouse suite without ever interacting with front-desk staff. These progressions will enable hospitality companies to cut back on staffing, or at least reassign employees to more mission-critical roles where the personal touch is key.

Hotels will ramp up video surveillance in hallways and public spaces, and will eventually deploy sensors similar to those in future airports to thwart potential threats.


Safety and security at live concerts and sports events also will be critical. How do we avoid crowd crush? Weapons? Infectious diseases? In 10 years, how are arenas and venues going to be different? One solution will be the same answer as at airports: ubiquitous scanners.

Automated crowd control is another coming safety precaution, with management companies leveraging extended reality (XR) technology to create a virtual queue system. For instance, messages from a central control to attendees’ phones and smartwatches can help direct the crowd in a choreographed fashion from Point A to Point B, increasing efficiency of movement and safety.

“The more technology is integrated into each passenger touchpoint, the more opportunities exist to collect data for improved decision making and operational efficiency. Data collected at all touchpoints from check-in through boarding can be collated to create a unified view of real-time airport operational events. This model allows airport authorities to monitor passenger flows in real time and make informed decisions to maintain social distancing or draw on historical data to anticipate how to manage key checkpoints at high-traffic times.”

—Sherry Stein, head of technology strategy, SITA Americas


Of course there’s a dark side to security. The more information we turn over to organizations and national security departments, the more pernicious it will be if they decide to use the information against us. Put differently, if countries that currently cooperate on security suddenly decide to stop playing nice with each other, they can easily weaponize travelers’ data, including biometrics and travel histories.

In early 2021 hackers raided the IT infrastructure of SITA, which handles 60 percent of the air transport community’s data exchange over a wide range of services, from frequent-flyer programs to air navigation. In the ensuing weeks, airlines notified millions of their customers that their passport numbers, dates of birth and other key personal identifiers had been stolen. So far, SITA hasn’t confirmed that the hackers accessed any additional aviation industry data beyond passenger information. But state-sponsored and independent hacking units are ramping up attacks on airlines and their data partners. It’s not hard to foresee a ransomware attack that shuts down air travel worldwide with a demand along the lines of: “Send us $100 million in Monero [untraceable cryptocurrency] by noon UTC Friday, or we will disrupt air traffic control at 25 major airports.”

To avoid a cyber-Armageddon scenario, the entire aviation industry and governments around the world will need to decentralize and secure their data systems quickly, cooperatively and comprehensively. Here’s why: even though Singapore Airlines led the industry by switching its loyalty program to a highly secure blockchain-based system in 2019, its frequent flyers still had their data stolen because that data had been shared with a Star Alliance partner airline that was compromised in the SITA hack.


The recent rise of authoritarianism and ultranationalism around the world has been bad for human freedoms and bad for business. If the trend continues, it could be a disaster for the international travel industry.

Measures of global freedom have been on a 15-year decline. Shifts toward tyranny usually have devastating economic consequences. Countries where political power became concentrated such as Turkey, Venezuela and Hungary, saw dramatic drops in their domestic product and foreign investment. By invading Ukraine, Russia has become an international pariah and has effectively removed itself from the global travel map. Currently over 4 billion people— half the world’s population—live under the rule of tyrants, absolute monarchs and other forms of authoritarian power. This amounts to a monumental loss of human potential—and travel potential.

Repressive regimes pose major obstacles for the business of tourism. International partnerships become harder to maintain as costs and risks are added at every turn. Increased red tape, unenforceable contracts, corruption and the arbitrary use of centralized power are all barriers to creating enduring cross-border relationships. The possibility of boycotts or travel bans and the reputational cost for companies that do business with authoritarian regimes loom over business plans that run through authoritarian-run territories. In addition, tourists usually avoid destinations prone to political crackdowns, arbitrary law enforcement and security crises.

In this environment, companies will have to carefully weigh the risks and potential benefits of each international deal, partnership and investment. Tourism can increase the power and wealth of autocrats, but it can also be the antidote for xenophobia and nationalism. Building understanding between people of different cultures and backgrounds is one of the great benefits of a thriving global travel industry.

“I have watched the cultures of all lands blow around my house and other winds have blown the seeds of peace, for travel is the language of peace.”

—Mahatma Gandhi