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January 31, 2020

Stopping the coronavirus at the border – a challenge for data management

By Irra Ariella Khi

Tragic news continues to develop regarding the novel coronavirus outbreak, with a proliferation of new cases taking the number of people infected well into the thousands. As the virus spreads across international borders and with cases confirmed across several continents, including the UK, it brings to light the shortfalls of screening and identity management processes in the aviation industry.

To help stop coronavirus and other diseases from spreading across the globe, airline procedures need to become the first line of defence.

In today’s globalised world, containing contagious diseases like the coronavirus is near impossible; the volumes of people moving both within a country and across international borders are simply too high. Being able to identify and track passengers is crucial for implementing effective quarantine and managing outbreaks of disease.

However, when it comes to the processes in place for verifying passenger identities at international borders, there is significant room for improvement.

It is difficult to legislate for human behaviour, as we’ve seen in the case of the passenger self-medicating to suppress symptoms and trick airport health checks, but this outbreak should shine a spotlight on the data management processes used at our borders.

This is where passenger data is used by governments to decide whether they should – or shouldn’t – admit a passenger to their country. The spread of the coronavirus through international travel should now serve as a wake-up call to the aviation and border industry.

Stopping coronavirus: Too little too late?

It may not be realistic to expect the international community to be able to completely stop the flow of people in and out of any country, particularly not one the size of China. But reactions to contain and track passengers in order to manage the outbreak were relatively ineffective and seemed to misunderstand the realities of modern air travel.

To begin with, only passengers on direct flights from Wuhan to Heathrow were screened for symptoms. Any passengers flying through another airport first before connecting on to Heathrow, or passengers flying into any other UK airport, were not screened.

Now individual airlines are taking firmer action, with British Airways announcing the suspension of all direct flights to China until early February. But one carrier announcing restrictions is not sufficient to prevent the spread of a virus, just as screening for one particular flight route isn’t either. Similarly, the belated introduction of quarantines for those returning to the UK will do little to account for the thousands who have already arrived from the affected regions and there is no way of identifying those passengers.

Better data processes could provide a solution

The restrictive and inefficient nature of international responses to the coronavirus outbreak is not down to apathy or ignorance of the scale of the problem. More simply, the reason that the UK only introduced screening for passengers coming directly from Wuhan to Heathrow, rather than those connecting via Shanghai or Dubai, is because – as processes currently stand – it is impossible for the airlines to identify these passengers, and for either an airline or a government to know who these people are.

Verifying passenger data in the international aviation industry is fraught with inefficiencies and inaccuracies. Highly sensitive datasets are stored in independent silos, preventing the sharing of knowledge between different airlines or with government agencies.

This means that after a passenger’s identity has been verified, that verification cannot be used again without going through the same manual data-checking process, even if the passenger is flying twice on the same day with the same airline. Manual checks by airline staff to verify the passenger’s identity must start from scratch every single time, causing queues and chaos.

Significant overhaul of data management needed

For airlines and governments to have visibility over whether a passenger – say, on a flight from Dubai to London – has previously flown from China, there needs to be a significant overhaul of data management practices in international aviation.

Luckily technology is moving in the right direction, with the emergence of platforms that facilitate secure data sharing between parties, while protecting the integrity of passengers’ personally identifiable information. It’s important that airlines and government agencies understand the value and invest in these new technologies, so we start to see the necessary improvements – particularly in managing a health risk which can be spread via international air travel.

Technology designed to solve issues around data management and verification is making the passenger experience more seamless and relieving the burden on airline operations, but it could also help successfully manage and limit the spread of fatal diseases like the coronavirus and assist airlines and governments tasked with containing it.

Read more: Coronavirus in the UK: Your cybersecurity is at greater risk than your health


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