Biometrics: Facial recognition tech coming to an airport near you

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An image provided by the travel technology company SITA illustrates how a biometrics system might map the features of a human face.
An image provided by the travel technology company SITA illustrates how a biometrics system might map the features of a human face.

In Aruba, KLM passengers flying to Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport can go from check-in all the way to boarding without a ticket and with just one passport check.



At Boston Logan, a recent trial conducted at the boarding gate by JetBlue in conjunction with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) allowed passengers to board their flight to Aruba hands-free. JetBlue is now testing the same process on flights from Boston to Santiago, Dominican Republic.

And at Singapore's Changi Airport, the new 21-gate Terminal 4, which opened on Oct. 31, includes a state-of-the-art system that allows for self-service options at check-in, bag drop, immigration and boarding.

In each case, these cutting-edge airport systems have been enabled through the deployment of biometric facial recognition technology. Passengers have their photo taken, their face is checked against the image held in the biometric chip of their e-passport, or against an airline's passenger manifest, and they move on through the airport without the need for a manual identity check.

In the case of the Aruba-Amsterdam route, the process is being taken further, with the biometric data that is stored at check-in used to verify identities automatically as travelers pass camera stations at bag check, security and the boarding gate. In other words, one's face more or less becomes both passport and ticket.

Soon, experts say, similar systems are likely to spread around the globe, reducing lines, speeding the time it takes to get from check-in to gate and decreasing the number of staff that airlines and airports require.

"We're seeing a massive interest in this around the world," said Sean Farrell, who heads the biometrics team for the travel technology company SITA. "It just seems that in the last year or so it has really gotten a lot of traction. ... I think by 2020 you're going to see major airports that have really shifted over to a biometric model."

Ryan Gee, editor of the U.K.-based publication Future Travel Experience, strikes a similar tone. "I would say that in the last 12 to 18 months, all of a sudden there has been a lot of excitement around biometrics," he said.

Privacy experts have been raising concerns about the ramifications of widespread deployment of facial recognition systems in airports, especially when governments are involved.

"Using facial recognition doesn't reduce traffic at the checkpoint," said Harrison Rudolph, an associate at Georgetown Law's Center on Privacy & Technology. "It just enhances the risk that your face will be used in ways that travelers didn't expect."

SITA’s Smart Path check-in area at Brisbane Airport. After check-in, Air New Zealand passengers can go all the way to the aircraft without needing to again show identification or a boarding pass.
SITA’s Smart Path check-in area at Brisbane Airport. After check-in, Air New Zealand passengers can go all the way to the aircraft without needing to again show identification or a boarding pass.

Improving the airport experience

Advocates disagree, asserting that facial recognition technology will make the airport experience easier for passengers. Here in the U.S., security lines should shorten as fewer people reach a TSA agent and only then take the time to find the required passport or driver's license.

Also, at security gates as well as at boarding gates, passengers won't have to keep track of passports, driver's licenses and boarding passes, making the airport journey easier, especially for parents who are shepherding multiple toddlers through a flight.

Biometrics can also be deployed for such things as entry to airport lounges and for purchases at duty-free stores.

"We have an overall strategy to improve the experience," said Liliana Petrova, director of customer experience programs for JetBlue. "One of the guiding principles that I am following in my work is to provide an opportunity for self-journey and to put an end to those seams in the journey, the breaks in the journey."

For airports and airlines, an increase in automation should also be a money saver. Singapore Changi officials estimate that the innovations employed by the airport's new terminal will reduce staffing needs by 20% once operations have been stabilized.

Another potential benefit, said Tony Chapman, senior director of global product management and strategic programs for the avionics company Rockwell Collins, is that by increasing airport efficiency and reducing terminal congestion, biometrics could make it possible for airports to expand more slowly and less dramatically.

Facial recognition is also increasingly being put to use in airports by security agencies, including the CBP, which is under Congressional mandate to collect biometric data on all foreign nationals departing the U.S.

The staging area for a recent hands-free boarding trial on Boston-Aruba flights. JetBlue partnered with U.S. Customs and Border Protection on the trial.
The staging area for a recent hands-free boarding trial on Boston-Aruba flights. JetBlue partnered with U.S. Customs and Border Protection on the trial.

Starting point

Indeed, it is through the CBP that biometrics have thus far been most thoroughly deployed at U.S. airports. For more than a decade, the agency has been taking photos and fingerprints upon arrival of all visitors to the U.S., then verifying that data against passports.

In addition to the CBP's trial in Boston in partnership with JetBlue, it is conducting related trials with Delta and at airports in New York, Washington, Houston, Chicago, Atlanta, Las Vegas and Miami. All are part of a process that will lead to the implementation of biometric exit checks at boarding gates nationwide on international flights, said John Wagner, deputy executive assistant commissioner for the CBP's office of field operations.

The exit checks will play a key role in advancing the federal government's goal of more thoroughly tracking visa overstays by foreign nationals. Photos of international visitors will be held for years and can also be used to check FBI and terrorist watch lists, Wagner said.

The screenings, he noted, need to be done at gates rather than at TSA checkpoints to ensure that foreign nationals actually board their flights and that bad actors don't take steps such as trading boarding passes post-security. The CBP hopes to have biometric exit points deployed at international gates nationwide within two years, Wagner said.

In the JetBlue trial, participants boarding a Boston-Aruba flight stepped in front of a biometric camera system that was linked to a database JetBlue had supplied to the CBP from each flight's passenger manifest. The station then instantly matched the passenger photos to their passports, visas or immigration documents. Cleared passengers were informed via video screen that they could board the aircraft. Those who participated in the trial were able to board without showing a boarding pass.

While such a system would be part of the CBP's security mandate, Petrova said that the hands-free boarding functionality is also proving to be a benefit to JetBlue.

The biometric clearance is taking a similar amount of time as a gate-agent ticket check, but it has resulted in more even spacing during boarding, she said, which has eased congestion on the jet bridge.

A passenger’s face is recorded and used instead of a boarding pass during the trial this summer.
A passenger’s face is recorded and used instead of a boarding pass during the trial this summer.

As the CBP implements its facial recognition exit screening nationwide, it will collect photos not only of foreigners but also of U.S. citizens. Wagner said photos of citizens will be held for only 14 days and will be used only for analysis on the functioning of the system. He added that the CBP already has biometric photos of all U.S. citizens engaging in foreign travel via their passports.

Still, Georgetown's Rudolph warns that U.S. citizens should be wary of their government gathering such data. The CBP, Rudolph said, hasn't implemented meaningful restrictions on where it will share the photographs. And Congress, he said, hasn't told the agency to collect such data from Americans.

Facial recognition, said Rudolph, is an imperfect technology, and it's prone to making more errors with African-Americans, women and children than it is with white men.

"Americans should be very wary about giving up their biometrics to fly," he said.

While Rudolph's main concern is with mandatory facial recognition by government agencies, he said hacking presents the biggest risk in relation to the deployment of such technologies by airports and airlines.

"The major problem is whether the companies are following the best [digital security] practices," he said.

That's exactly what Rockwell Collins is doing, Chapman said. With its systems, the company encrypts the data and stores it for 24 hours in its secure network.

"The airport can't send it anywhere," Chapman said. "It's under our control."

Ready for adoption

Security and privacy concerns don't appear to be hindering interest in facial recognition technology within the commercial aviation network.

According to IATA's recently released Global Passenger Survey, 64% of more than 10,600 respondents favored biometric identification systems.

Meanwhile, SITA's 2017 Air Transport IT Trends survey found that 25% of airlines are planning to offer what is known in industry parlance as single-token travel using biometrics by 2020. Under single-token travel, passengers need to show only a passport, other ID or boarding pass at the first biometric kiosk they encounter, typically at check-in, bag drop or security, depending on whether they have baggage and whether they checked in prior to airport arrival. After that, a biometric marker, usually their face, is all they need to get through various airport pass points.

Twenty-nine percent of airports are planning to implement a single-token biometric identity management system by 2020, according to the SITA survey.

The new Terminal 4 in Singapore’s Changi Airport has biometric self-service options at check-in, immigration and boarding.
The new Terminal 4 in Singapore’s Changi Airport has biometric self-service options at check-in, immigration and boarding.

Singapore's Changi is among the airports leading the way in the implementation of facial recognition technology. The nearly $1 billion Terminal 4 was constructed with the facial recognition-enabled Fast and Seamless Travel (FAST) system integrated into the facility. For passengers, that means a self-service option for each stage of the departure process, enabling them to move from check-in through boarding without ever having to deal with an agent, security officer or airport staffer.

Under the FAST system, passengers must still produce their passports and tickets at immigration, where identities are checked through the use of facial recognition. And they must show the ticket again at boarding.

Efficient though it sounds, that process would likely seem laborious to a flyer who has taken advantage of the Aruba Happy Flow trial system in operation since 2015 between Aruba and Amsterdam.

Billed as "The first 100% self-service passenger experience," it works under the single-token model, with passengers showing their passports just once.

The program's webpage states that after passengers show their passports, "they move across all stages of the airport, being identified at user-friendly passenger touch points by face-recognition cameras which identify them by their face."

The system is made logistically easier to implement on the Aruba-Amsterdam route by the fact that Aruba is part of the Netherlands.

But other single-token airport operations are also in trials. Since March, for example, Air New Zealand passengers at Australia's Brisbane Airport have been able to move seamlessly from check-in to boarding without documents through the use of SITA's single-token Smart Path technology, which is designed to integrate with existing common-use infrastructure at airports, such as kiosks.

JetBlue’s project with Customs and Border Protection is not the only facial recognition system undergoing airport trials. Avionics company Rockwell Collins, which provided the image at right illustrating how the technology works, has a biometric system that logs a traveler’s identity. The company is trying out the tech at four undisclosed airports.
JetBlue’s project with Customs and Border Protection is not the only facial recognition system undergoing airport trials. Avionics company Rockwell Collins, which provided the image at right illustrating how the technology works, has a biometric system that logs a traveler’s identity. The company is trying out the tech at four undisclosed airports.

Rockwell Collins, meanwhile, is undertaking single-token biometric trials at four airports, said Chapman, who said that for contractual reasons he could not reveal which ones.

Other airports and airlines are already employing facial recognition in a more limited capacity. For example, in London Heathrow's Terminal 5, British Airways passengers can take advantage of biometric e-gates to board planes hands-free.

But while the technology for facial recognition travel is ready from a technological standpoint, experts say that regulatory issues present a problem. That's especially the case if single-token travel is to be extended between airports so that flyers could enter a country without showing documents.

"Everyone wants to get to this utopian vision of document-free travel," said Matt Cornelius, vice president of air policy for the trade organization Airports Council International-North America. "The technology is sort of easy. It's the business rules, the government regulations, the statutes, all those things that are difficult to accomplish."

The Airports Council is not the lone industry trade group to have recognized such a problem. Smoothing over the bureaucratic hurdles of single-token travel is one of the goals of IATA's Passenger Facilitation Working Group, which brings together government agencies and stakeholders throughout the commercial aviation industry. In particular, wrote Annet Steenbergen, the group's chairwoman and the coordinator of the Aruba Happy Flow trial, it is necessary to develop a trusted and secure international standard for single-token technology.

JetBlue's Petrova said that forming the right partnerships will be key as airlines, airports and governments seek to overcome the regulatory difficulties of facial recognition travel.

"I think it is more about committing on that path forward," she said. "Then when everybody comes together it works."

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