Spirit starts biometric bag drop at LaGuardia, O'Hare

A Spirit customer uses a biometric self-bag drop machine.
A Spirit customer uses a biometric self-bag drop machine. Photo Credit: Spirit

New biometric bag drop machines that Spirit has begun operating at New York LaGuardia and Chicago O'Hare have the potential to be transformative for U.S. flyers.

In fact, the discount carrier said it is working on protocols in conjunction with TSA that would allow passengers to check bags for the first time on U.S. domestic flights without any manual identity verification from an agent.

"If there were 10 hurdles that we needed to jump over to get this all through, we've done nine of them," Spirit spokesman Field Sutton said.

Spirit is operating four biometric units at LaGuardia and five at O'Hare. For now, passengers initiate the process by showing their ID to an agent. They then proceed to one of the biometric machines.

The units verify the identity of each passenger by cross-checking the passenger's photo on an ID, such as a driver's license, against a live photo the machine takes at the scene. Assuming it's a match, passengers then drop their bags onto a belt attached to the unit and they are weighed. Bag fee payments are also made through the unit, all without the need for additional assistance from an agent. 

Spirit began the self-bag drop project for time-saving purposes. Data confirms the new procedure lowers average bag drop processing time to just 70 seconds per flyer, a reduction of 30%, the company said. But with the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic, Spirit now also views biometric bag drop as a way to reduce face-to-face interactions. 

However, the company will need TSA approval before it can entirely remove agents from the process.

In an email, TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein declined to specifically address a question about Spirit's biometric units. The agency, she said, is committed to partnering with airlines in order to enhance the efficiency and security of the air travel experience. 

"TSA routinely works with its stakeholders and industry experts to develop clear requirements for industry implementation of new security technology," Farbstein said. "Automated bag drop solutions are at the forefront of this technology implementation and are leveraging cutting-edge ID verification and biometric matching technologies."

Sutton said that Spirit has been testing the biometric hardware in the LaGuardia bag drop units since May. In the past few weeks, the carrier has made the biometric process available to all flyers at LaGuardia while also making the O'Hare units operational. 

TSA approval to eliminate the agent ID check, he said, is contingent upon the carrier having enough data to demonstrate the reliability and accuracy of the biometric checks. 

"We expect it to be soon," Sutton said. 

Passengers who are concerned about privacy have the choice to opt out of the biometric identity check. But Sutton said that Spirit does not share individuals' data; the carrier only provides broader reports on the accuracy of the biometric verification to the TSA.

Though this is the first time a U.S. carrier has deployed biometric check-in assistance for domestic flights, numerous U.S. airports and airlines have tested or rolled out biometric solutions for boarding international flights. In late 2018, Delta unveiled a package of trial solutions in Atlanta's international Terminal F that allowed passengers to go through bag check, security and boarding without having to display a boarding pass after submitting to biometric identity verification at a check-in kiosk. 

Such international travel solutions, though, must match images taken at biometric units against digital passport images already held by Customs and Border Protection (CBP). 

For Spirit's domestic solution, passengers can submit any of more than 50,000 forms of ID from nearly 200 countries. Identity confirmation is undertaken entirely by the airline, without the aid of the CBP or any other outside entity. 


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