Unlike airlines, where passenger name records (PNRs) have provided a standardised (if incomplete) data source for almost five decades, the cruise industry has no common standard. Cruiselines control their own sales funnels and, as such, typically do not need the global billing and settlement plan that led to the creation of PNRs for airlines.
Yet as the debate in air travel moves to data transfer with authorities, the cruise industry is being left behind. For airlines, the speed at which, and degree to which, they share the PNR data with government agencies varies. All customs organisations and other border law enforcement agencies want as much information as possible on the travelling public. Yet not all members of that public trust government agencies. Airlines, too, guard that valuable data on commercial grounds, aware that airlines, travel agencies and others may attempt to steal their customer.
For cruise lines, however, the passenger data is locked up in almost impenetrable passenger manifests. Each cruise line (often even within the same parent company) has its own ledger. These chart average spend, favourite meals, shore excursions and other biographical data as well as pure passport number and other identification data.
Customs agencies have for years offered a suboptimal border clearance solution for cruise passengers. Disgorging thousands of passengers every few days presents a challenge for agencies more used to the steady flow of 200-400 passengers per flight every 10 minutes that busy international airports serve up.
The growth of cruising has made this challenge more acute. Some 24 million people will cruise this year, up from 15 million a decade ago. Cruise ships are growing, too. The newest class of ship caters for 4,000 passengers at once. Add to this a desire to disembark at more remote locations and you can see the challenge.
But cruise ships actually have advantages over airlines in a number of ways. First is time. Whereas advanced passenger information can be analysed by customs officers for 1-12 hours ahead of a plane arrival, cruises take days to move from one jurisdiction to another. This provides ample time to correlate data on passengers of interest.
A further point in favour of cruise lines is the homogeneity of their passengers. Although some effort has been made to diversify the cruising clientèle, the vast majority still fit into one of a few demographics. This makes spotting the outsider easier. Take for example someone who never purchases alcohol on a cruise. Once you eliminate children, the list of teetotallers is small. Cross reference this with other behavioural analysis the cruise ships collect on their passengers and a treasure trove of profiling is available. (It is, incidentally, crew who are more likely to be of interest).
Making cruiselines part of the border clearance regime is a win-win solution. Cruiselines have to control the movements of passenger at all times for security reasons. With almost unfettered access to 20 storeys of boat, advanced procedures are in place to make sure no one get lost either on board or at sea. Cruiselines also have an interest in improving shore processing of their passengers, whose grumble is the wait time.
A new deal is required that sees cruise passengers acquiesce to the advanced processing of their data during their itineraries. In many ways, cruise lines could perform the role of accredited migration agents.
With the new joined-up thinking between customs and biosecurity agencies around the world, only those of interest to immigration, police or quarantine should be pulled aside for further checking. Everyone else should be able to come and go as they please, with surveillance behind the scenes.