All over Europe the face of border control at airports is changing. The conventional checkpoints with border officers in inspection booths are gradually being supplemented by self-service gates for holders of European e-Passports. Hans de Moel reviews the ongoing evolution of border control in general, and the Self Service Passport Control system at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol in The Netherlands in particular.

Evolution in border control
Travellers must carry an identity document in order to travel by plane and cross a border. It enables the authorities to identify the traveller and assess the risk of admittance. The identity document required for air travel is a secure document protected by various security features. The nature and number of these features vary by country and document, and are subject to a continuous development process, making manual inspection increasingly more complex for border guards and immigration officers. While twenty years ago a (typed or handwritten) passport contained on average about five to ten security features, most passports nowadays have at least fifteen features, and some even up to thirty (figure 1).
  Since April 2010, all newly issued passports have to be machine readable according to ICAO standards. In addition, European legislation requires a minimum set of security features for e‑Passports, but it does not specify standards or uniform techniques. As a result, each individual country has its own interpretation of security features in their travel document. Consequently, border guards have to know a rich variety of security features by heart in order to check travel documents from every country correctly. 

figure 1

Border control processes
Traditionally, every country in the world had its own set of local rules for admittance. With the creation of the European Union and the Schengen Area more uniform rules apply, the so-called Schengen Borders Code. This Code requires participating states to remove all obstacles to free traffic flow at internal borders. Thus, road, rail and air passengers no longer have their identity checked by border guards when travelling between Schengen countries, although travellers should still carry a passport or ID card. Passengers travelling from a country outside the Schengen area to one of the Schengen countries will still have to go through a standard border passage process at their point of entry.

In such a standard border passage process four steps need to be performed:

  • Verification: the person must be verified against the travel document.
  • Authentication: the travel document must be checked for authenticity (no alterations and/or forgeries). 
  • Identification: the person and document must be checked against (inter)national databases. 
  • Authorisation: the border passage must be compliant with the rules of admittance.

These steps are not always performed in the same order. In The Netherlands, traditionally the first step will be the verification of the person against the document, while for example in Australia the first step is identification, with a split between knowns (Australians, New Zealanders and all other travellers in the Visa register) and unknowns (undocumented or incorrectly documented persons).

As people are allowed to travel freely within the Schengen area, the quality of border control in all Member States should meet certain minimal requirements. This applies to both manual and automated border control systems (ABCS). In most ABCSs the first step is authentication, during which the validity of the document is checked.

The improved security of the physical document has lead to a shift in fraud operations. An increasing number of people no longer use altered or forged documents to travel, but authentic travel documents that do not belong to them. This is referred to as look-alike fraud. As such, verifying a person against the document nowadays takes more time than it used to. 

The work of border guards and immigration officers is made increasingly complex by a number of developments. First, more attention is devoted to counterterrorism since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York. More intensive checks mean that more information about the traveller is required. Furthermore, border guards must ask for information more frequently than they used to because people are profiled in advance (while waiting in line) or during the course of the border surveillance process.

It is likely that the check time will increase with the number of security features. The European e‑Passport is a combination of a physical and an electronic travel document, in which the printed image on the holder page often lacks the quality of the old-fashioned passport photograph. This means that, beside the physical security features in the passport, the electronic security features in the RFID chip (including the digital image) have to be checked as well.

Check time and capacity
It is clear that the time required by a border guard to check a traveller and the doubly secured travel document will increase. If nothing changes in the number of border guards deployed and travellers to be checked, the total time it takes to cross the border will therefore also increase, possibly resulting in (longer) queues at border crossing points. These must be limited whenever possible, as they have a negative connotation in the travellers’ eyes.

Situation at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol
Zooming in further on the capacity issue in relation to border guards and deploying more border guards to check travel documents and travellers would seem to be the logical solution. Amsterdam Airport Schiphol processed over 45 million travellers in 2009 and over 50 million travellers in 2012, making it one of the world’s larger international airports. The number of travellers is expected to grow in years to come. By 2015, Schiphol will be processing around 60 million travellers per year, and by 2020 more than 70 million travellers are to be expected. 
  Such growth cannot be absorbed simply by investing in extra man power and training. Besides, recruiting and training new border guards also requires more time than is available with this growth rate. Therefore, a new operating method is needed. It is striking that only a single solution approach is being taken from a generic perspective to safeguard the integrity of the border passage. This involves improving the security features of travel documents. The training of border guards follows automatically. The adaptation speed of the physical border crossing process itself, in relation to the aforementioned developments, leaves a lot to be desired. 

Efficient border control
If Schiphol wants to continue to organise the triangle of mobility, security and user friendliness to the full satisfaction of the aviation industry, the authorities and travellers themselves, the border crossing process has to be tackled and improved. The introduction of the electronic travel document and the worldwide growth of registered traveller programs (RTP), for which (frequent) travellers register voluntarily, open up a range of opportunities for adjusting the border crossing process in line with the demand for mobility, security and user-friendliness. 

Against the backdrop of various measures to improve the border passage for travellers, the Dutch government’s ambition is to create an effective and efficient border control process using innovative automated monitoring and risk-driven action on the basis of advance information wherever possible. The program aims to develop and implement new and innovative concepts for (automated or assisted) border passage and collaboration between the stakeholders. The program is in line with the policy to maintain Schiphol’s competitive position. 

Summarising, we can state that the check time at the border is increasing, as is the time of the current total border crossing process, due to an increase in the number of security features and expected growth of number of travellers. The Self Service Passport Control (SSPC) project at Schiphol makes a tangible contribution towards reducing the check time. It aims to improve services to citizens by realising a less demanding and more customer-friendly border control process. Checks are not limited but rather restructured, as described below.

Self Service Passport Control (SSPC)
Although developing an ABCS may seem straightforward and is presumably simply an automated version of the manual border control process, in practice there is a lot more to it. At Schiphol Airport developing the new SSPC system was a public-private joint venture. Several government bodies worked together with the airport operator on building the system, starting with a simple mission: to create an ABCS with a broad scope (in principle suitable for all travellers) applicable to any border (air, land or sea) in a uniform way and future-proof (scalable).

First, a think-tank was formed to design a uniform concept. This concept consisted of four dynamic zones with eight types of travellers working their way from either the several parking options or train station at landside to the correct gate for the booked airplane on airside or vice versa from the arrival gate (airside) to Schiphol Plaza (landside). In this concept several types of fraud commonly found at airports could be countered, from detecting forgeries and imposters to tickets swaps and deliberate no‑shows. No specific biometric technology or token was selected, and a merged view was used for security versus ease of use, as well as for workability and user-friendliness for both travellers and border guards. The total flow of passengers with all the transactions necessary to be performed was described and divided in substreams to create a seamless flow. This meant a complete redesign of the passenger process at the airport.

After this concept had been presented to the authorities, the elaborate dynamic concept was abandoned due to budget cuts, and the requirements were customised for Schiphol Airport. This resulted in a narrowed-down redesign of the dynamic concept. The European e-Passport was chosen as token, and facial comparison as the biometric of choice. All border control processes involved were now concentrated to a fixed location: the e-gate. The scope of travellers was also restricted to citizens from the European Union, the European Economic Area and Switzerland, aged 18 years and older.

While developing this system the project team looked at several ABCSs in other countries and initiated a small workgroup on best practices. From these meetings a lot of valuable information was collected and transferred to FRONTEX, Europe’s outer border protection agency, which has published best practice technical guidelines on the subject1.

figure 2

The general set‑up of an ABCS or e‑gate can be divided in two groups: two-door mantraps and one-door kiosks. Several vendors were approached and different arrangements were tested by both travellers and border guards, which resulted in an alternative design than initially was offered by any vendor. The system at Schiphol Airport is a combination of kiosk and a man trap: the initial approach is like a one-door kiosk, but in actual operation the e‑gate acts as a two-door man trap (figure 2). 

This project aimed not at just purchasing hardware to replace the task of the border guards, but rather acquiring innovative tools for the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee (Koninklijke Marechaussee or KMar) to assist with its border control activities. Therefore ABCS in The Netherlands no longer stands for Automated Border Control System but for Assisted Border Crossing Services or ‘eGates‑As‑A‑Service’. In this concept the task of the border guard does not change, however the role while fulfilling the task does: instead of focussing on document examination, the border guard now has to act as a profiler. With the As-A-Service concept the system also allows for continuous modification and optimisation. 

Change in operational test phase
In the current roll-out at Schiphol Airport 36 ABCS are installed at 3 locations (Arrival, Transit and Departure). Following successful usage, ABCS numbers may be increased. Travelers can perform a Self-Service Passport Check if they belong to the target group (EU citizen, 18+ and traveling with e-passport). Due to insights some adjustments in the practical operation took place. For instance, no device was initially required to keep travelers from withdrawing their passport while the system was still reading the chip. This was added, because retraction of the passport too fast led to more interventions than desirable. Because the system was set up as-a-service this kind of changes can be made continuously. As there will always be unforeseen events and circumstances, the system needs adjustments at any time.