America at work
How This Virginia Startup Teamed Up With Airports to Make Customs a Breeze
By Kim Lachance Shandrow | April 12, 2017

Welcome to #BizUnited, a new series highlighting innovative partnerships between large corporations and small businesses across America. Check back periodically for new installments.

Like most travelers, Hans Miller isn’t a fan of waiting in long lines at airports. The former U.S. Transportation Security Administration official was so put off by frustrating wait times — particularly the ones caused by U.S. Customs and Border Protections (CBP) queues inside of airports — that he created an innovative app that “helps passengers breeze right through them.”

The Boeing-sponsored smartphone app — which Miller and the co-founders of his Arlington, Va.-based tech startup Airside Mobile, Inc. developed in partnership with the CBP — is called Mobile Passport. Free to download and use, the tool enables eligible passengers to save individual traveler profiles securely on their smartphones, submit customs declarations to CBP electronically and then proceed directly to dedicated lanes for expedited processing.

In other words, it speeds up and simplifies — and modernizes — the airport U.S. Customs declarations process.

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“When people who use the app submit their information upon arrival in the U.S., they receive an encrypted barcode receipt that allows them access to the Mobile Passport queue,” Miller explained, “at the end of which they scan their phone and have a brief chat with a CBP officer. As a result, entering the country with Mobile Passport is a very fast process.”

Before setting out to shorten CBP lines at America’s airports, Miller, who earned degrees at Harvard, Georgetown and Wharton, had also worked with the Department of Homeland Security.

“While there at DHS, we had pushed through mobile boarding passes for the U.S. market,” he said, “and we thought, ‘Hmmm, what other airport lines could we get rid of?’”

His clever app, which doesn’t totally erase CBP airport lines, but makes them considerably more tolerable, went live in 2014. Today, Mobile Passport is now available at 21 U.S. airports, from Sacramento to Tampa, as well as at Port Everglades in Hollywood, Fla. for cruise travelers.

One of the most recent airports to adopt Airside Mobile’s inaugural app is Dulles International Airport, which is managed by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA).

“The Airports Authority is committed to being on the forefront of technology to support our pledge of delivering a safe, secure and enjoyable passenger experience,” MWAA vice president and chief revenue officer Jerome Davis told Free Enterprise. “Mobile Passport, for example, saves passengers time filling out paper forms and it reduces processing times.”

Additionally, Davis said that the MWAA has “made a number of investments and partnered with other organizations to bring our airports the automated passport kiosk, Airside Mobile’s Mobile Passport app, CLEAR biometric identity verification, and, more recently, the U.S. Customs modified egress program, which speeds transfer passengers through Customs to get them to their connecting flights.”

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Implementing all of the above innovations, Davis said, has enabled Dulles International Airport to offer the second fastest U.S. Customs wait times of all the major international airports in the U.S. “We believe both Reagan National Airport and Dulles have some of the shorter security wait times in the country as well,” he added. (It is important to note, however, that Mobile Passport is not used at the airport’s Transportation Security Administration security checkpoints.)

Miller runs his business out of 1776 — a Washington, D.C.-based global startup network and venture fund that recently partnered with MWAA “to explore and encourage technologies for enhancing the passenger experience in airports and related businesses.” He says he’s pleased with the growing number of travelers passing through Dulles who are now using Mobile Passport.

“The team at MWAA — and the Airports International-North America — have been very supportive of our efforts,” he said. “Mobile Passport has been operational at Washington Dulles for several months, and, every month, more and more travelers are taking advantage of it.”

Looking ahead, Miller hinted that Airside Mobile has “some new surprises in the oven” when it comes to solving common airport challenges with technological innovations. You can expect to see those innovations — which he and MWAA officials are keeping under wraps for now — some time in early 2018, he said.

“Our secret goal is to steal the new tunneling technology from Elon Musk and build a new hyperloop between Reagan National Airport and Dulles International,” the cheeky entrepreneur joked. “So far, MWAA has been resistant, but we’ll keep at it.”

Meanwhile, Davis sees the success of Miller’s app as a positive sign of what’s to come, particularly with regard to MWAA’s new partnership with 1776.

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“This innovation by Airside Mobile, which has helped to significantly streamline Customs processing at Dulles, is a prime example of the work we will be pursuing with our 1776 partners,” said Davis. “We look forward to working together on the development and marketing of additional innovations that will help our airports — and the entire aviation industry — keep up with the quickly evolving trends that are shaping our business and the global economy.”

Having forged the partnership just last February, 1776 and MWAA are in the early stages of what promises to be a very collaborative relationship, with a core focus on “matching airport passenger needs and desires with innovations that can meet those new and changing customer expectations while helping airport facilities become more efficient and convenient for passengers in the process.”

Representatives from 1776 and MWAA recently met at the global incubator’s sprawling open-office hub on 1133 15th St. NW, to explore ways to work together.

“We did a roundup with 15 of our startups and seven or eight officials from MWAA to talk about the opportunity to collaborate, and about the technologies of interest to the Airport Authority,” David Zipper, managing director of 1776’s Washington, D.C. branch told Free Enterprise. “It was a cool moment on both sides to see how much they could accomplish together.”

Zipper characterizes 1776’s role as that of a matchmaker of sorts, able and ready to assist in connecting the MWAA with local “outside-of-the-box” tech startup founders who can offer a more streamlined airport travel experience, at both Dulles International and Reagan National airports, and beyond.

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“There is an obvious connection between startups and airports and tremendous benefits can be gleaned on both sides, and Airside Mobile is an excellent example of that,” he said. “Startup founders, like those from Airside, travel through airports all the time, and many of them recognize that opportunities exist to employ innovative strategies to solve common challenges that airport officials often grapple with. Yet airports can be very large and imposing organizations for a startup to approach. And it’s not always clear how to find your way in to work with one, so my excitement about this partnership is rooted in breaking down those barriers and forging lasting connections that lead to technology that make trips to the airport faster, more enjoyable and more efficient — something everyone wants.”

As for what the MWAA brings to the table, Davis said the Airport Authority plans to provide 1776 startup founders with mentoring services, as well as with key subject matter expertise, both of which he hopes will help shape not only their products to come but also the future of airport travel innovation.

“We have already had the opportunity to meet with several entrepreneurs who have interesting concepts that could have potential at our airports,” he said. “However, it’s too soon to say which ones we might ultimately deploy, but we look forward to the journey of finding the right partnerships.”

For Miller’s part, he’s excited at the possibilities, particularly for smaller startups like his.

“There is tremendous room for innovation in commercial aviation, but traditionally, the industry has turned to established players to design and implement new projects,” he said. “Smaller companies like Airside and others offer a degree of agility and perhaps fresh thinking that can help keep MWAA a leader in the airport industry.”

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