Five Key Considerations for Airport Leaders Implementing Biometrics

July 23, 2021
Betros Wakim, President, airport IT Americas, airport IT, Amadeus
Betros Wakim, President, airport IT Americas, airport IT, Amadeus

The pressures of the airport environment are always increasing, and while many airport leaders have pursued the long-term goal of automation for some time, the pandemic has clearly accelerated this trend. In the context of new traveler expectations and health and safety requirements, many airports have begun to roll out biometric solutions, while others are considering the move.

By introducing biometric solutions such as facial recognition to previously manual checkpoints, in-person interactions are reduced, delivering a safer and more contactless journey as well as an improved overall experience. From the passenger’s perspective these changes deliver huge gains, but the benefits resonate just as strongly with airports. A biometric implementation maximizes existing infrastructure and improves efficiency by increasing the overall passenger handling capacity of an airport.

But knowing how to approach the deployment of an emerging technology like biometrics isn’t straightforward. In this article, we cover some key takeaways from Amadeus’ ten years of experience working in this field.

1.    How should we begin?

With multiple interacting processes acting in tandem from check-in to boarding, the complexity of the passenger terminal underlines the importance of defining a long-term strategy.

There are several different participants involved, including passengers, airlines that have already established processes in the airport, as well as, the airport itself. Often, this means that its best to begin with a small integration at a single touchpoint to ensure stakeholders are educated and the benefits are proven before a “big-bang” deployment. Boarding is a good place to start - it typically represents the easiest stage of the passenger experience as it only involves the identification of a single passenger.

For instance, Fort Lauderdale - Hollywood International Airport has delivered a fully contactless experience at the boarding gate matching the passenger with their booking and automatically boarding the passenger in the airline’s Departure Control System (DCS)  while complying with U.S. Customs & Border Protection Agency (CBP) requirements for all international travelers to biometrically validate they have departed the country.

It is, however, worth noting that a large-scale deployment is the driver of tangible benefits in most cases. This is because an end-to-end passenger flow automates document checks at every step, making the airport experience smoother for the passenger, who can ‘walk through’ the entire terminal without the need for support staff. Start small but be clear on the long-term vision.

2.     How can we avoid future cost?

The immediate need to respond to COVID-19 has rapidly increased the significance of biometrics, but it’s important to recognize that the infrastructure will be a mainstay of airports in the long-term. This means that leaders need to decide upon a flexible approach to technical architecture that delivers the desired outcome while minimizing ongoing costs.

As biometrics expand across airports image capture devices will need to be embedded at every touchpoint. They’ll also need to be connected to the Identity Management Platforms (IMPs), government agencies, and hundreds of airlines to match digital identities, which taken together, creates a complex interacting network.

For a single airline deployment this is feasible, but the promise of biometrics revolves around a shared infrastructure that works for all airlines and this poses a significant challenge. Future-proof strategies should consider cloud architecture rather than on site solutions, which with a single link can connect biometric infrastructure to virtually any airline, IMP, or Identity Provider regardless of industry changes.  

3.     How to improve operational flexibility when the airport manages the Identity Management Platform (IMP)?

In the US, domestic flights require an airport to connect to an IMP as the Customs & Border Protection agency (CBP) service is currently focused on international travel. When deploying an IMP, we recommend considering a cloud approach.

When considering domestic flights creating an IMP for a single airport can appear to be an attractive proposition. It means that interfaces are in house, and in the short term will deliver a simpler integration. For some airports, these benefits will outweigh the associated risks, but it’s important to be aware that this limits operational flexibility. With on-site biometric solutions, a lot of time and investment will be made to integrate hardware such as boarding gates – but what happens if you need to connect to a different IMP for certain flights or specific passengers?

A cloud-based approach will drastically reduce the manual work for both airlines and airports while offering the added benefit of increased resilience. With an IMP in the cloud the airport can easily connect to any third-party identity provider, allowing travelers to use their identity of choice when traveling.

4.     How can we manage exceptions?

How exceptions are handled in the design of the end-to-end process is a critical consideration from the outset. Airports will always need traditional touchpoints, and early in the adoption curve, some passengers may not consider enrolling in advance. This means that they should be able to opt for biometrics at service points such as the kiosk, bag-drop, check-in counter, or security e-gates.

Even if such exceptions are infrequent, they can interrupt the smooth biometric process and result in lengthy transactions for passengers. In these cases, traditional passenger processing will be essential to provide in-situ exception handling.

5.     How to encourage airline adoption?

A final consideration for airport leaders revolves around their airline partners. Their buy-in will be essential to a successful biometric program and for this reason, it must be simple and compelling.

The biometric identity solution needs to work within each airline’s system to reduce disruption to existing processes and allow passengers to be recognized and served according to each airline’s policies and each traveler’s unique needs.

Airlines should also be consulted throughout to ensure that benefits are maximized, and existing operations are safeguarded. Airline central teams specify guidelines for the on-site agents, who will need to be briefed on the updated processes and prepared to properly serve anyone who falls outside of the biometric flow. The cultural, training and planning processes are vital aspects of any biometric program.

Biometrics offer a huge opportunity to digitally transform the passenger experience, increasing automation while improving how passengers move through the terminal. But in the rush to respond to the lessons of pandemic, its important airports take the time to consider an efficient, powerful, long-term strategy.

Betros Wakim is president, airport IT Americas, airport IT, Amadeus.

About the Author

Betros Wakim | President, Airport IT Americas