Mastering API-PNR Data completeness: A Keystone for Effective Passenger Information Units

By David Pautet, Chief Technical Officer and Helene Dubos, Head of Marketing at Streamlane, API-PNR service providers

In the complex world of global security and border control management, Passenger Information Units (PIUs) play a pivotal role. These specialized units are tasked with a critical mission: to safeguard national and international security by scrutinizing passenger data to identify persons of interest and detect suspicious behaviors. The cornerstone of their operation lies in the collection and analysis of Advance Passenger Information (API) and Passenger Name Records (PNR), which provide comprehensive details about travelers and their travel patterns.

The Challenge of Data Completeness
At the heart of PIUs’ effectiveness is the completeness and integrity of the data they collect. Without access to complete and accurate information, the ability of PIUs to perform their duties is significantly compromised. This challenge underscores a fundamental truth in data analysis: you cannot analyze data you don’t have. Therefore, it’s crucial for a PIU to ensure the full collection of API and PNR messages for all flights in their area of authority. This enables the identification of carriers not meeting their obligations allowing for swift communication to address and rectify the situation. From an analysis point of view, this provides information on the nature, context and approximate quantity of missing data.

Common Technical Solutions for Ensuring Data exhaustivity
To address the challenge of data completeness, PIUs utilize a variety of technical means to cross-check actual aircraft movements against the API-PNR messages collected from air carriers. A foundational approach involves leveraging batch files provided by airports or specialized databases such as OAG, which contain detailed logs of aircraft movements within specified periods. These files serve as a retrospective tool, allowing PIUs to reconcile recorded flights with the corresponding passenger data submitted by airlines.
A more dynamic and proactive solution involves establishing real-time links with air traffic control (ATC) authorities. These real-time data streams offer immediate insights into aircraft movements, presenting an opportunity for PIUs to identify discrepancies in real-time – between the flight activity and the API PNR data actually received for each flight – thus enhancing the timeliness and effectiveness of security operations. Although setting up this solution might be complex for PIUs on their own, API-PNR service providers have developed such solutions for easy and quick implementation.

Eurocontrol’s Role in Enhancing Data exhaustivity
In Europe, Eurocontrol plays a pivotal role in managing air traffic and ensuring the safety and efficiency of air navigation across the continent. As a central coordination body, Eurocontrol can provide comprehensive data on aircraft movements across its member states, making it an invaluable resource for PIUs in the region.

Eurocontrol’s Centralized Services offer tools and services designed to facilitate the exchange and analysis of flight data. By tapping into Eurocontrol’s data, PIUs can gain access to precise information on flight paths, schedules, and real-time movements of aircraft over Europe. This data is instrumental in verifying the accuracy of API and PNR information received from carriers, thereby enhancing the completeness of the data at PIUs’ disposal.

Furthermore, Eurocontrol’s Network Manager Operations Centre (NMOC) provides real-time traffic flow management, which can be leveraged by PIUs to obtain current and accurate flight movement data. The NMOC’s capabilities in monitoring and managing airspace usage across Europe ensure that PIUs have access to reliable data for cross-referencing with API and PNR submissions.

Collaboration with Air Traffic Control Authorities
Beyond Eurocontrol, collaboration with various national and regional air traffic control authorities worldwide is crucial. These authorities oversee aircraft movements within their respective airspaces and can provide specific data that complements the information available from Eurocontrol and other sources.
By establishing partnerships and data-sharing agreements with these entities, PIUs can enhance their capability to monitor and analyze passenger movements more effectively. Such collaborations ensure that PIUs are not solely reliant on data provided by airlines but have multiple channels to verify and supplement this information, thereby significantly reducing the likelihood of missing or incomplete data.

In summary, leveraging the capabilities of Eurocontrol and other air traffic control authorities globally presents a comprehensive approach to ensuring the integrity of API and PNR data. These technical solutions, combined with strategic collaborations, empower PIUs to fulfill their mission with a higher degree of accuracy and efficiency.

Reconciling aircraft movement with the related API and PNR transmission
One of the nuanced challenges in cross-referencing actual aircraft movements with API-PNR messages collected from various air carriers is the different identification used for a same aircraft movement : commercial flight numbers and air traffic control call signs. Commercial flight numbers are familiar to passengers and are used by airlines for booking and marketing flights. In contrast, air traffic control (ATC) call signs are used for operational communication and coordination, facilitating clear identification and management of aircraft in-flight by air traffic controllers. Both IDs are valid ones !

According to insights from Flightradar24, call signs and flight numbers often differ due to several reasons, including but not limited to, the airline’s internal scheduling systems, codeshare agreements between airlines, and the specific requirements of air traffic control systems across different regions. For instance, an airline may operate a single flight under multiple flight numbers due to partnership agreements with other airlines (codesharing), leading to a scenario where one aircraft movement corresponds to several flight numbers. Conversely, for air traffic control purposes, a single, unique call sign is used to identify that flight operationally, which may not directly match any of the commercial flight numbers.

Case of flight identification discrepancies and challenges to overcome

Case 1 : British Airways (BA) launched a new air route to Luxembourg through its subsidiary, CityFlyer (CJ). This initiative was part of a strategy to expand its operations in Europe and offer more options to travelers. The flights were operated under the name CityFlyer and were declared to Eurocontrol with the identifier CJ, in accordance with standard operational procedures. However, a complication arose due to the configuration of the reservation system / DCS. The Advanced Passenger Information (API) data transmitted from these systems was sent under the BA ID. This inconsistency in the code has led to inconsistencies that no longer allow API-PNR data received to be associated with an aircraft movement declared to ATC.

Case 2 : Another case that illustrates a cause of divergence. In business aviation. world, certain operators declare their flights to ATC using the aircraft tail number (aircraft registration ID), whereas they transmit their API-PNR data associated with their “ICAO flight identifier” (as expected by the norms and imposed by many PIUs).

As seen in the previous examples, this discrepancy can pose a significant challenge for PIUs attempting to reconcile API and PNR data (which are tied to commercial flight numbers) with real-time aircraft movement information when identified by ATC call signs. The complexity is further exacerbated by the global nature of air travel, where an aircraft might traverse multiple air traffic control jurisdictions, each with its distinct operational protocols and communication practices.

To address this challenge, PIUs can employ sophisticated data matching and integration techniques that account for the differences between commercial flight numbers and ATC call signs. This may involve developing algorithms or employing software solutions capable of intelligently linking these two types of identifiers, based on historical data, flight schedules, and patterns of codeshare agreements. Close collaboration with airlines, airports, air traffic control authorities, and tech providers of the API-PNR market, is essential for accessing comprehensive datasets that can facilitate the accurate matching of API and PNR information with actual aircraft movements.

The Importance of Additional Controls
Beyond these methods, the implementation of additional controls to identify unexpected messages from carriers is critical. Such anomalies could indicate incorrect message routing or unscheduled changes in airline operations not properly communicated to state authorities. Addressing these issues is essential for maintaining the integrity of the data and, by extension, the security operations dependent on this information.

A Call for Comprehensive Data Management
In conclusion, the role of PIUs in contributing to global security cannot be overstated. As the transport industry continues to evolve and expand, the need for robust, reliable data collection and analysis mechanisms becomes increasingly critical. By ensuring this first goal of completeness of API and PNR data, PIUs are better equipped to identify threats and safeguard against potential security breaches. This effort requires a collaborative approach between all stakeholders and powerful technologies enabling, among other things, cross-referencing of data to monitor carrier compliance and, by extension, tools to automatically notify carriers in the event of a problem.