Look at the camera and you’re cleared for take off

In the second post of this series investigating how biometric technology is changing travellers’ experiences, we look at some of the ground-breaking trials being conducted at airports.

World air traffic is growing fast at nearly 5% a year. By 2037, the number of air travellers will have doubled, according to a recent IATA forecast. There’s no way airport infrastructure can keep up.

Speaking at the WTTC Global Summit in Argentina earlier this year, Paul Griffiths, CEO, Dubai Airports, was characteristically direct about the need to find ways to move all these new passengers through airports and on to planes. “We have no choice,” he said.

“We have to do this otherwise the whole airport infrastructure will grind to a halt.”

Biometric technologies are just one of the ways airports are seeking to solve this problem. Here’s a snapshot of some of the airports where your journey will be smoother and — crucially — quicker.

Ready to board at many US airports

Nowhere is pushing the adoption of biometric tech harder than the USA. Here, the Customs and Border Protection Agency (CBP) is aggressively rolling out its Traveller Verification Service. All passengers who have been to the United States, or are holders of US Passports, already have verified images stored on the CBP database as a result of the current immigration processes. Using the Traveller Verification Service, airports can match facial images of passengers to the CBP database to confirm their identity. JetBlue has been trialling this tech since 2017, successfully boarding over 50,000 passengers using facial recognition only. Passengers at New York’s JFK airport, Boston Logan, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood and Ronald Reagan Washington can also now board flights simply by looking into a facial recognition camera. British Airways has been trialling it for passengers boarding at LAX bound for Heathrow. A380 superjumbos are typically fully boarded almost twice as quickly — with over 450 passengers seated within 25 minutes instead of 45.

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Check in area at Brisbane Airport (Source: Australian Aviation)

Boarding in Brisbane and Sydney too

Facial recognition to allow passengers to board aircraft is becoming widespread outside the USA too. At Brisbane Airport in Australia, Air New Zealand passengers use a self-service check-in kiosk on arrival at the airport. During check-in, an image is captured of their face and this is used to create a secure token, using biometrics linked to the passenger’s travel documents. Once they reach the boarding gate, passengers board via an automated gate that uses facial recognition to match their face to the image taken at check-in. Sydney airport is conducting trials too. Technology provider SITA says that the trials reduce the time it takes for a passenger to check-in or to board by up to 70%.

Clear immigration at Singapore

Rather than just for boarding, biometrics are also used to allow some passengers to clear immigration at Changi airport in Singapore. At Terminal 4, passengers who are Singaporean or who have previously enrolled their thumbprints with the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority can avoid the queues at immigration and use automated booths. As their thumbprint is being read by the booth, a photograph of their face is taken too. This is then used to allow passengers to board their flight at an automated boarding gate using facial recognition, mirroring the approach in the USA, Australia and elsewhere. Steve Lee, Changi Airport Group’s Chief Information Officer, recently suggested that cameras elsewhere in the airport could be used to locate lost passengers who are in danger of missing flights.

Joining it all up at Heathrow and Atlanta

British Airways has been trialling boarding with facial recognition for several years at Heathrow. All flights now feature the option to use an automated booth. But the transition to using facial recognition at further points in the traveller’s journey is well under way. UK passport holders already use automated booths to re-enter the country and by summer 2019, the airport plans to use facial recognition to allow people to drop off bags and pass through security as well.

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London Heathrow Airport (Source: YourHeathrow)

Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is even further ahead. Here, the end-to-end use of biometrics becomes a reality this month (December 2018). At Terminal F, passengers will be able to walk from their car to their plane seat showing their identity documents just once. Passengers use an app on their phone to check in and provide their passport information. Once at the airport they scan their passport once. And that’s it. Their facial characteristics are vetted automatically on the CBP database and cameras at check-in, bag drop, passport control, security and boarding will identify the passenger the rest of the way. Estimates suggest this will save passengers on average nine minutes — which for a few last-minute travellers could make the difference between catching or missing their flight.

This is the second post in our series about biometric technology in the travel sector. The first looks more widely at how tomorrow’s technology is already shaping today’s travel systems.

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