Are You Ready for Your Face to Be the Only Travel Document You Need?
Biometrics promise a future of passengers moving through airports more quickly and seamlessly. But passengers have to opt into the technology in order for it to take off. Are enough travelers convinced?
My face just got me back into the United States.
Arriving after a long transpacific flight from French Polynesia, I was nervously clutching my passport and eyeing the long line at immigration control filled with passengers disembarking other planes that had recently landed at San Francisco’s international airport terminal. While I have Global Entry, it hadn’t worked so smoothly when I last used it, well before the pandemic (the automatic passport reader malfunctioned).
But this time, it took only two minutes—all I had to do was look at a screen, get my picture taken, and grab the receipt that the kiosk spit out. No passport scanning, fingerprint matching, or other verification. “You’re good to go,” an immigration agent said after I told him I had nothing to declare.
This, in a nutshell, is the future that airlines and airports envision, not just at the end of, but at every stage of the air travel journey. Biometric technology, which uses an individual’s unique physical traits such as fingerprints or a facial or iris scan to verify their identity, was already a priority for the industry before COVID put the brakes on air travel. But it has taken on a new urgency after this past summer of travel chaos, when staffing shortages meant fliers were standing in long queues to do everything from check bags to board the plane.
One of the solutions, according to advocates of biometrics, is more contactless touchpoints, using travelers’ faces or other biometric tokens as a way to counter terminal gridlock in the air travel process. In short, your journey will involve more self-service facilitated by high-tech equipment and less human interaction.
“Our vision of the future is one in which passengers can glide through airports using their face as their boarding pass, with the ability to travel from anywhere to everywhere without ever needing to show their travel documents,” says Sherry Stein, head of technology for the Americas at SITA, a Swiss biometric tech company that works with airlines and airports worldwide.
In recent years, airports in Los Angeles, Miami, Orlando, and San Diego have teamed up with SITA to use its Smart Path facial recognition technology, which allows for low or no-touch options like paperless check-in and contactless bag drop and lounge access.
So far these have been trial exercises involving one or two airlines at specific airport gates. For example, last year United Airlines tested a facial scanning system for luggage check and domestic boarding with SITA at San Francisco International Airport.
Most of the newer systems rely on facial scanning, which has gained support because it is easier to implement, versus taking fliers’ fingerprints or iris scans. Airport cameras can simply snap a photo of your face and match it with an image of a passport or driver’s license photo that is already in the airline’s database.
If this all has a familiar ring, it’s because the airlines have been hyping this technology as right around the corner for years. The pandemic, of course, slowed the momentum, but now the push is on to making biometrics a reality for more travelers. While the desire from airlines to invest in the tech is back, so are concerns about the accuracy and privacy issues around biometrics, which has alarmed some consumer advocates.
What are the benefits of biometrics?
For its part, the airline industry hopes that any lingering resistance will fade with time as more fliers experience biometrics firsthand. The International Air Transport Association, a global trade group representing some 290 airlines, says that over a third of air travelers worldwide have already experienced biometric identification in their travels, with an 88 percent satisfaction rate. In a recent survey, IATA found that 75 percent of the more than 10,000 travelers it polled were in favor of biometric IDs, up from 46 percent in 2019. The group is also pushing for more airlines and airports to adopt a common technology, and it has offered up a prototype, called “One ID.”
“Passengers clearly see technology as key to improving the convenience of airport processes. They want to arrive at the airport ready-to-fly, [and] get through the airport at both ends of their journey more quickly,” says Nick Careen, IATA’s senior vice president for operations, safety, and security.
Several airlines already offer a glimpse into what this future could look like. Passengers flying Delta Air Lines through Atlanta and Detroit, for example, can avail themselves of the airline’s “Digital ID,” which launched in 2021 and uses facial matching technology for checking bags, moving through security, and even for boarding a plane at select gates—all without showing a physical boarding pass or government ID. Delta also owns a stake in the security firm Clear, an early proponent of biometrics in travel that now operates its own ID verification lanes at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security screening checkpoints of more than 40 U.S. airports that use biometrics. (United also is a Clear investor.)
Delta claims that so far the response to its Digital ID has been positive. According to a company spokesperson, “A large majority of eligible customers have opted in to using Digital ID,” which is available to customers who already have TSA Precheck and a valid passport and are Delta SkyMiles members. The airline plans to roll out the technology at its new terminals at Los Angeles International Airport and New York’s La Guardia Airport next.
Other airlines, including American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, and JetBlue Airways have also tested their own biometric shortcuts at key hubs. In Europe, the Lufthansa Group carriers are deploying advances like biometric “gates” that can move people onto planes much faster than gate agents can.
“It is lightning fast,” says Mike Arnot, a spokesperson for the Star Alliance group, which includes Lufthansa, United, and other major international airlines. He explains that eligible passengers who enroll in the Star Alliance biometrics feature will have their facial image encrypted and stored in a secured database for the duration of the flight. After the flight, “the gallery is purged,” says Arnot.
At the biometrically enabled gate, enrolled passengers look into the camera, which captures a photo that it matches against the stored gallery for biometric identification—a process that takes less than two seconds to complete, according to Arnot. The biometrically enabled gate then opens to allow the passenger to proceed.
The world’s largest airline fraternity, Star Alliance recently set a goal of having 50 percent of its 26 member carriers using biometric technology by 2025—double the number of partner airlines that use it now.
“Surveys have shown that the vast majority of passengers are ready to submit their biometric credentials if it improves their travel experience,” says Christian Draeger, the Singapore-based vice president of customer experience at Star Alliance. Those improvements, according to advocates, include reducing the time it takes to board a full wide-body plane. For example, British Airways claims that it took as few as 22 minutes to board a full plane-load of 400 passengers using biometric boarding gates it tested at Los Angeles International Airport a few years ago.
To further enhance the appeal, there’s even talk of using facial recognition technology at airport duty-free shops and any place where you might need to display a boarding pass or passport, including airport hotels.
What about privacy?
One big pain point for the expansion of biometric technology are concerns about privacy and what airlines and airports can and should do to safeguard sensitive biometric data. IATA’s Careen concedes that safeguarding personal data is a serious concern. “We need to continuously reassure passengers that the data needed to support such an experience will be safely kept,” he notes, adding that “it also depends on cooperation with governments to make it happen.”
Airlines say that passengers will always have the choice of opting out. According to a statement from Delta, “Any customers who are not interested in using Digital ID can choose not to opt in and move through the airport as they normally do. Additionally, Delta does not save or store any biometric data, nor does it plan to.”
As far as handing over personal data, supporters of the new tech point out that many consumers now freely share vast amounts of data online and are comfortable with using biometric IDs like facial recognition to perform tasks such as unlocking their phones.
But air travel is different, skeptics say, given how many companies and governmental entities might be involved in the typical traveler’s journey. “We do have concerns,” says consumer advocate William McGee, senior fellow for aviation and travel at the American Economic Liberties Project and author of the book Attention All Passengers, adding that while participation is voluntary now, passengers in the future might find it far harder to opt out.
On top of privacy issues, the technology is hardly foolproof. According to the Department of Homeland Security’s own data, biometric exit tests a few years ago on average rejected about 1 in 25 travelers because their photos were mistakenly matched with someone else’s. Proponents say that figure is outdated and that the technology is continuing to improve dramatically. But still, critics in Congress, such as Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass.), have periodically called for a moratorium on new iterations of the technology until more studies can be conducted.
Whether or not fliers want or agree with the push for biometrics throughout the air travel experience, we are likely only going to see more of it in the coming months and years—including some developments that may seem pretty far-out. Take, for example, Delta’s “Parallel Reality” technology that’s being tested at its Detroit hub, which uses facial matching (for those who opt in) to flash your name and your gate number on a giant screen as you pass by.
“Sounds like we are not too far away from the world shown in the movie Minority Report,” one traveler cracked in a comment on the “View from the Wing” blog. As we encounter more of these sci-fi scanners, perhaps the idea that your face can be your ticket—literally, to the world—won’t seem so fanciful or futuristic anymore.