If it’s been a year or more since you traveled, particularly internationally, you may notice something different at airports in the United States: More steps — from checking a bag to clearing customs — are being automated using biometrics.
Biometrics are unique individual traits, such as fingerprints, that can be used to automate and verify identity. They promise both more security and efficiency in moving travelers through an airport where, at steps from check-in to boarding, passengers are normally required to show government-issued photo identification.
In the travel hiatus caused by the pandemic, many airports, airlines, tech companies and government agencies like the Transportation Security Administration and United States Customs and Border Protection continued to invest in biometric advancements. The need for social distancing and contactless interactions only added to the urgency.
“The technologies have gotten much more sophisticated and the accuracy rate much higher,” said Robert Tappan, the managing director for the trade group International Biometrics + Identity Association, who called the impetus to ease crowds and reduce contact through these instruments “COVID-accelerated.”
Many of the latest biometric developments use facial recognition, which the National Institute of Standards and Technology recently found is at least 99.5 percent accurate, rather than iris-scanning or fingerprints.
“Iris-scanning has been touted as the most foolproof,” said Sherry Stein, the head of technology in the Americas for SITA, a Switzerland-based biometrics tech company. “For biometrics to work, you have to be able to match to a known trusted source of data because you’re trying to compare it to a record on file. The face is the easiest because all the documents we use that prove your identity — driver’s licenses, passports etc. — rely on face.”
Shortly after 9/11, Congress mandated an entry and exit system using biometric technology to secure U.S. borders. Some travelers have expressed concerns about privacy, and while companies and agencies using the technology say they do not retain the images, the systems largely rely on willing travelers who agree to their use.
“Privacy is a major concern, as it should be, so most of these programs are going to be opt-in, and the government is trying to grow that pre-vetted audience,” said Jason Van Sice, the vice president of aviation in the Advanced Recognition Systems Division of NEC Corporation of America, which has been working in biometrics since 1971. He added that the loss of business during the pandemic pushed airlines and airports to automate as a cost-saving measure. “That’s really driven a digital transformation that was already underway.”
There are signs that the pandemic may be advancing biometric acceptance. In its recently released 2021 passenger survey, the International Air Transport Association found that 73 percent of passengers are willing to share their biometric data to improve airport processes, up from 46 percent in 2019.
Some of the embrace of biometrics may come from its everyday applications, such as using facial recognition to open your phone or to access your banking app.
“The implementation of seamless and contactless platforms is currently at full speed all over the globe, and the major impact of this is expected to be felt by 2022, as planning and deployment usually needs 12 to 18 months to be effective,” said Jeff Lennon, the vice president of strategic sales and global partnerships at Vision-Box, which operates biometric technology in more than 100 airports globally, including New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. “This is well-aligned with the expected return of mass international travel next year.”
In short, tech-driven changes are coming fast and furiously to airports, including the following advancements in biometrics.
Bag-check-to-boarding facial recognition
In November, Delta Air Lines launched a new digital identity program for T.S.A. PreCheck members at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport who can opt in to using facial recognition to do everything from checking a bag to clearing security and boarding their domestic flight.
Opting in requires the passenger to enter their U.S. passport number, which provides the back-end check on your identity using your passport photo, even though the new program is domestic only.
Using the hands-free facial scan, fliers can obtain a baggage tag and then proceed to a dedicated T.S.A. PreCheck line for facial scanning, no identification required.
At present, Delta has eight gates in its T concourse equipped for domestic boarding with facial recognition; most of these flights skew to business travel destinations such as New York City and Boston. Flyers do not need to show a boarding pass, and their seat assignment will appear on the facial recognition screen after scanning.
Delta has been testing the technology since 2018 and plans to bring it to its Detroit hub later this year.
“We want to give our customers more time to enjoy travel by unlocking simplified, seamless and efficient experiences from end to end,” said Byron Merritt, Delta’s vice president of brand experience design.