by Robert Silk
In Aruba, KLM passengers flying to Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport can go from check-in all the way to boarding without a ticket and with just one passport check.
At Boston Logan, a recent trial conducted at the boarding gate by JetBlue in conjunction with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) allowed passengers to board their flight to Aruba hands-free. JetBlue is now testing the same process on flights from Boston to Santiago, Dominican Republic.
And at Singapore’s Changi Airport, the new 21-gate Terminal 4, which opened on Oct. 31, includes a state-of-the-art system that allows for self-service options at check-in, bag drop, immigration and boarding.
In each case, these cutting-edge airport systems have been enabled through the deployment of biometric facial recognition technology. Passengers have their photo taken, their face is checked against the image held in the biometric chip of their e-passport, or against an airline’s passenger manifest, and they move on through the airport without the need for a manual identity check.
In the case of the Aruba-Amsterdam route, the process is being taken further, with the biometric data that is stored at check-in used to verify identities automatically as travelers pass camera stations at bag check, security and the boarding gate. In other words, one’s face more or less becomes both passport and ticket.
Soon, experts say, similar systems are likely to spread around the globe, reducing lines, speeding the time it takes to get from check-in to gate and decreasing the number of staff that airlines and airports require.
“We’re seeing a massive interest in this around the world,” said Sean Farrell, who heads the biometrics team for the travel technology company SITA. “It just seems that in the last year or so it has really gotten a lot of traction. … I think by 2020 you’re going to see major airports that have really shifted over to a biometric model.”
Ryan Gee, editor of the U.K.-based publication Future Travel Experience, strikes a similar tone. “I would say that in the last 12 to 18 months, all of a sudden there has been a lot of excitement around biometrics,” he said.
Privacy experts have been raising concerns about the ramifications of widespread deployment of facial recognition systems in airports, especially when governments are involved.
“Using facial recognition doesn’t reduce traffic at the checkpoint,” said Harrison Rudolph, an associate at Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy & Technology. “It just enhances the risk that your face will be used in ways that travelers didn’t expect.”
Advocates disagree, asserting that facial recognition technology will make the airport experience easier for passengers. Here in the U.S., security lines should shorten as fewer people reach a TSA agent and only then take the time to find the required passport or driver’s license.
Also, at security gates as well as at boarding gates, passengers won’t have to keep track of passports, driver’s licenses and boarding passes, making the airport journey easier, especially for parents who are shepherding multiple toddlers through a flight.
Biometrics can also be deployed for such things as entry to airport lounges and for purchases at duty-free stores.
“We have an overall strategy to improve the experience,” said Liliana Petrova, director of customer experience programs for JetBlue. “One of the guiding principles that I am following in my work is to provide an opportunity for self-journey and to put an end to those seams in the journey, the breaks in the journey.”
For airports and airlines, an increase in automation should also be a money saver. Singapore Changi officials estimate that the innovations employed by the airport’s new terminal will reduce staffing needs by 20% once operations have been stabilized.
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