Smile at the Camera: The Expansion of Biometrics at the Airport

Feb. 25, 2019

Most travelers face the check-in and security processes at airports with a feeling that typically fluctuates somewhere between resignation and dread. There are the long, snaking lines to shuffle through one agonizing step at a time. There is the struggle to balance briefcase, wallet and ID without letting anything important drop to the floor. And despite its importance, there is frustration associated with the need to prove one’s identity at multiple checkpoints.

Biometric technology – in particular, facial recognition solutions – hold the promise to change all that for the benefit of travelers, airlines, and airports alike. Multiple airlines, including British Airways, Delta, JetBlue, and Lufthansa – as well as airports worldwide – are testing biometric authentication as a means to streamline the passenger experience. With facial recognition biometrics, passengers have their photo taken at the airport. That photo is then compared with stored valid ID images. If there is a match, the passenger is approved to move forward through the process. Check-in and security are transformed from a “necessary evil” into a seamless, frictionless process.

The rewards of successful biometric solutions are many, but some of the most notable ones include:

  • Passengers spend less time in lines and have less hassle, improving customer satisfaction
  • Airport vendors benefit from the extra time passengers have to shop and eat in the airport terminal.
  • Airports have the opportunity to automate check-in and security to a greater degree, enabling the optimization of staffing, capacity and resources.
  • Airlines are able to avoid needless and costly delays waiting for passengers.
  • Airports and airlines boost security by analyzing facial images for known terrorists.
  • Immigration and border control organizations can verify the status of individuals seeking entry to a country in real-time. 

Given that the International Air Transport Association (IATA) expects 7.8 billion passengers to travel by the year 2036 – almost double the current volume of air travelers – the need for streamlined check-in and security clearance processes is critical. IATA itself is promoting the use of biometric technology in their introduction of One ID. According to IATA:

“One ID seeks to introduce a collaborative identity management solution that spans all process steps and stakeholders in the end-to-end journey from booking to arrival at destination and back, putting the passenger in the center. The concept relies on early validation of the passengers’ identity, and controlled access to this information by the various public and private stakeholders on an authorized-to-know basis, so that the passenger can be recognized and attended to in the most efficient way in subsequent process steps. The concept involves the use of a trusted, digital identity, biometric recognition technology and a collaborative identity management platform.”

Breaking that down, the use of biometrics at the airport involves biometric-capturing technology, reliable algorithms for producing identity matches, an identity management platform, and end-to-end security. All these components must work together in real-time for any integrated solution to deliver against its promised benefits.

Of these components, security is potentially the greatest sticking point to the success of utilizing biometrics at the airport. The fact is, while almost three quarters of consumers indicate that they are either very comfortable or somewhat comfortable with biometrics, a full 86 percent of consumers state that they are very concerned or somewhat concerned about the misuse of their personal information, according to a report by the Center for Identity at the University of Texas at Austin. Therefore, airports, airlines and security organizations need to demonstrate that they can protect the privacy and confidentiality of consumer biometric and personal data. Otherwise, they will likely face objections or protests against the expansion of biometric technology.

To promote digital trust with consumers, security must be fully integrated into any biometric airport solution. It should offer multichannel and multifactor authentication, auditability, real-time monitoring, advanced analytics and protection against both external and internal threats. For example, solutions exist on the market today that leverage identity-driven microsegmentation and strong encryption to dynamically secure communities of interest – separating trusted systems, users, and data from the untrusted. It enables organizations to further reduces the attack surface by concealing endpoints, rendering them undetectable in any public or private network. 

What it comes down to is this: airline passengers are more than willing to smile at the camera – as long as they know that their smile will be protected.

Dheeraj Kohli is Vice President and the Global Head of Travel and Transportation and Hemalatha Asundi is Airport Solutions and Product Manager for Blue Bell-based Unisys Corporation. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected].