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Hotel SearchIn 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. 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 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,
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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.

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.

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.
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