How biometric technology is transforming air travel

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[ This article was originally published here ]

When looking at the transformation happening in air travel, we cannot deny the impact of digitization and the role of biometrics as a facilitator for all the processes happening at an airport, from check in to boarding.

Airports and airlines have a huge challenge ahead, as they will have to absorb twice as many passengers 15 years from now. Since it’s impossible for them to double real estate and staff in such short period, they will have to turn to technology to get the existing manpower and infrastructure to work more efficiently.

This is not just a blurry, far away projection, it is already happening: 77% of the world’s airports and 71% of airlines are already investing heavily in biometric tech research and development to secure passenger throughput, according to SITA.

Furthermore, airports, airlines and border forces are now using  biometric technology to deal with the rapidly increasing number of passengers, set to double by 2036.

The challenges that air travel faces include repetition, stress, queues, security and unpredictability. With more and more people to clear the traveller experience will get worse and certain hubs and airlines may suffer, if no measures are taken. But here’s what airlines and airports could to do avoid that.

Benefits of biometric technology for air travel

Automating the verification process: Automating the traveller verification processes using biometric technology offers huge advantages, both in terms of facilitation and security.  A few years ago, border forces started deploying automated border control (ABC) gates to keep up with the number of passengers to clear at entrance and exit and avoid longer queues. By using facial recognition as the biometric of choice, ABC allows a seamless, less intrusive and faster experience compared to the one provided when relying on fingerprint scans.

Preventing document fraud: In terms of security, biometrics can help spot people attempting to travel with a document that is genuine but was issued to someone else. Lookalike fraud is one of the most common document fraud, and untrained airline personnel would have hard time verifying that the person presenting the document is indeed its holder. When biometrics is used to authenticate the passenger at both boarding and exit management the system can automatically identify in just seconds those passengers who are exiting with a different ID document from the one they used at entry, or when someone is exiting after expiration of their visa.

Ensuring passenger facilitation and satisfaction: At last, travellers will not have to present their passport and boarding pass several times, from the moment they enter the airport to when they board the plane. Instead, they will only be checked once, as early as possible in the process and then they will be able to breeze through all the control points without having to hand over any documents, just by simply walking through, hardly noticing the cameras at bag drop, security and at the boarding gate.

Taking into consideration environmental factors when deploying biometrics

Be it for the biometric exit pilots in the US, the biometric entry in Australia, the smart corridor in Dubai, biometric recognition technology is key. We have now reached a point where speed of capture and matching as well as image quality and cost of equipment are no longer an issue. What we need now is more on-site testing to deploy these systems in real-life situations. For example, during the first deployments of ABC gates with fingerprint verification, people were confused about where to scan their finger, although it seemed clear on paper and in the lab. Others were not comfortable with the system and needed assistance to feel more confident and try it out.

Environmental factors such as gate orientation with sunlight coming from different angles, can also impact the process of biometric capture, creating shadows and reflections. If the image captured is not good enough, the traveller may be rejected despite being eligible to pass. This all needs to be fine-tuned on site, in real conditions, to maximize the desired result: less queues and faster controls with a high level of security.

Collaborate to succeed 

Airports have complex ecosystems, with many different processes, each owned by different parties. For example, airlines own check-in, bag drop and boarding, either direct, or via shared systems, security is owned by a third party and immigration by the government. And the buyer of the technology may not be the one who controls it entirely, as it is often the case with ABC gates, where airports and border forces share responsibility.

So, all these stakeholders need to come together, and collaborate on a new, simplified journey they could offer to travellers. Working together on a shared system while having very different business objectives is a challenge, so how can they reconcile speed and security? The challenge here is not about the technology, but about finding the right mix between conflicting KPIs!

Blockchain is often positioned as the magic recipe in such multi-stakeholder environments. It is often cited as the technology of choice for airlines and airports to verify a passenger’s identity.

Nevertheless, beyond the technology enablement part, in environments where traveler data is shared between several parties, public and private, is crucial to ensure that the data is thoroughly protected, and user privacy is respected.

The technology to secure data is here, with methods of data segregation and encryption, and the capacity to control who accesses it. User privacy can also be ensured with opt in, opt out mechanisms and by always leaving the choice to travelers to use the classical verification method instead of a digitized pathway.

Besides the actual implementation of such biometric passenger clearance systems, the parties involved will have to explain what passenger data is used for, by whom, how long it is kept in the systems, etc. This is essential not only from a privacy standpoint, but also to ensure user trust in the system and willingness to use it.

To conclude…

For airports, airlines and border forces alike, automated processes leveraging biometrics are the promise for less bottlenecks, higher security, improved traveller satisfaction and potential for brand differentiation as well as allowing their specialized staff to focus on what’s really important: security and passenger experience. Concentrating on the actual risks and easing formalities for trusted travellers, would mean helping people who are in need of assistance and build up conversations with customers.

You can read more on biometrics and travel here: https://www.gemalto.com/govt/coesys/eborder/biometrics-and-passenger-experience