PHL Installs Technology for Biometric Boarding Process

Jan. 5, 2023
SITA-NEC Solution at Philadelphia International Airport’s Terminal A gates helps U.S. Customs and Border Protection process departing passengers for outbound international flights safely and efficiently.

Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) is installing facial biometric technology at 25 boarding gates in terminals A-East and A-West to help U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) process departing passengers on international flights safely and efficiently. The facial biometrics process is designed to verify travelers’ identities by comparing a live photo to images that the traveler has already provided to the government, such as passport and visa photos.

CBP has a Congressional mandate to biometrically record all foreign nationals who enter and exit the United States (excluding select travelers such as Canadian citizens who don’t require a visa to enter the U.S., and diplomatic visa holders).

“The safety and security of our passengers and airport employees are our top priority and require a collaborative effort by the City of Philadelphia Department of Aviation, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and our airline partners,” said PHL Chief Operating Officer Keith Brune. “We are excited to move forward with the installation of biometric technology at PHL. This system will make the screening process more efficient for everyone and is especially important as international travel continues to grow post-pandemic.”

In partnership with CBP, PHL will install equipment to collect facial biometrics of travelers exiting the U.S. CBP has built the facial biometric matching service that airlines, airports, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) can access wherever traveler identity verification is required throughout the air travel journey, including check-in, bag drop, security checkpoints, and boarding. CBP has implemented the complementary Simplified Arrival process on entry at PHL that also leverages facial biometrics to verify the identity of travelers to further secure and streamline the entry process.

“Customs and Border Protection and PHL Airport have partnered to expand the use of facial biometrics to provide international travelers with a secure, touchless departures process for identity verification and that protects the privacy of all travelers,” said Joseph Martella, CBP’s Area Port Director for the Area Port of Philadelphia. “Currently, CBP has processed more than 249 million travelers through facial biometrics and prevented more than 1,650 impostors from illegally entering the country. CBP will continue to explore emerging technologies to help improve travel efficiencies, the traveler experience, and enhance our nation’s security.”

Travelers who do not wish to participate in the facial biometric boarding process may simply notify a CBP Officer or an airline or airport representative, request a manual document check, and are processed consistent with existing requirements for entry to the United States. U.S. citizens can voluntarily participate in the facial biometric process. CBP discards all photos of U.S. citizens within 12 hours of identity verification and stores the photos of foreign travelers in a secure DHS database. 

Using SITA’s Smart Path solution powered by the NEC I:Delight digital identity management platform, passengers in A-East and A-West step up to a camera at the boarding gate to verify their identity and board in a matter of seconds. All without the need to present a passport or boarding pass. The system captures the passenger’s picture as they enter the biometric touchpoint and then sends the image to CBP for matching against existing images held within the CBP’s database. Once verified, the passenger is able to board their aircraft.

Matthys Serfontein, SITA President of the Americas, said “We are pleased to bring our biometric solution to PHL and help the airport meet the CBP’s mandate for biometric U.S. exit checks. With Smart Path, the process is fast, efficient, and eliminates the need to fumble for your passport or boarding card.”

PHL conducted a pilot program at A-West gates in early 2020 to determine what specifications were needed to install biometric technology at the airport. SITA was among the technology tested by the airport during the 45- day pilot.

The launch of biometric screening at PHL will occur in three phases. The first set of 10 gates (A7, A8, A9. A10. A11. A12. A13, A15. A16. A17) is now operational. The second set of 10 gates will be installed mid-January through February, followed by the remaining five gates in late March through mid-April.

“PHL spent a significant amount of time to find the best solution for the airport. Our goal was to find a viable solution that not only met the basic requirements from the Department of Homeland Security but also to have partners with experience in airports and biometrics solutions around the world,” said Allen Mehta, PHL’s Chief Information Officer. “SITA and NEC were selected because of their vast experience, satisfaction, and reliability in the industry. Since SITA has already provided other systems in PHL’s International Terminal for many years, this integration will make the environment seamless.”