Science & tech

The biometric airport

Since 2016, Delta Airlines has been turning to biometric technologies in a bid to replace the boarding pass. Gareth Joyce, senior vice president of airport customer experience, discusses Delta’s recent fingerprint recognition pilot scheme and explains what the long-term implications might be.

Might passengers one day be able to breeze through an airport without needing to show a boarding pass or even passport? At this time of heightened security, it may sound like a counterintuitive goal, but the latest improvements in biometric technology are rendering it ever more probable.

With a number of airports implementing fingerprint and facial-recognition technology, biometric solutions are rapidly emerging as a way to improve security and speed up passenger flows. Given that passenger numbers are growing fast – they are expected to swell from 3.8bn in 2016 to 7.2bn in 2035, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) – airports urgently need ways to reduce congestion.

Biometrics hold unparalleled promise in this regard. If every airport touchpoint – check-in, bag drop, border control, security checks and the boarding gate – could all be accessed without having to present travel documents, long queues could theoretically become a thing of the past. The added bonus here would be the elimination of human error, with biometrics widely seen as a step up in terms of accuracy and security.

“We’re moving towards a day where your iris or face imprint will become the only ID you’ll need for any number of transactions throughout a given day,” says Gareth Joyce, senior vice president of airport customer experience at Delta Airlines. “That’s not only in airport travel – we envisage that all consumer-facing industries will go this way.”

Wave of innovation

Delta recently took an important step in this direction. In May, it began piloting a new biometric check-in feature that enables eligible passengers to use their fingerprints as proof of identity.

This trial, involving Delta SkyMiles members traversing Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), initially just allowed passengers to access the Delta Sky Club. However, its second phase enabled them to board their flight as well, without needing to pull out a boarding pass.

“We launched the use of biometric readers using fingerprint technology from the CLEAR platform, to give our customers the ability to access our Sky Club with the use of their biometric footprint only,” says Joyce. “So no need to wait in line to see an agent to check into the Club – you simply walk up to the reader, scan your fingerprint and you’re provided access provided you are eligible. It’s an easy way to have ingress and egress, and we’ve had very positive feedback from our customers.”

The trial came about as part of a wider wave of innovation. Since mid-2016, Delta, has launched solutions such as RFID baggage handling, real-time bag tracking via the Fly Delta mobile app and high-tech automated screening lanes.

Perhaps the most important milestone, however, was its partnership with CLEAR, a fast-growing biometric security company overseen by the TSA. Currently available in more than 20 US airports, CLEAR is the only US biometric identity verification platform that uses fingerprint and iris-scanning technology in lieu of a document check.

Biometric benefits

In April 2016, Delta announced it had purchased a 5% stake in the company, which meant it could offer CLEAR membership free to its premium flyers and at a discounted rate to everybody else.

After undergoing a fingerprint and iris scan at an airport kiosk, members can move through the airport more quickly: they simply re-scan their fingers or eyes at designated touchpoints, rather than handing their passport to a TSA agent. Although they still need to submit to physical bag and body screening, they can queue in a dedicated CLEAR lane, reducing the time spent at security.

“Delta partnered with CLEAR last year to implement biometric technology in 23 of our busiest airports, which helped our customers expedite the security process,” says Joyce. “That had an overwhelmingly positive reaction from our customer base, and when we did some research, more than 83% of the customers said they’d love to see us using more biometrics in other parts of the travel ribbon.”

Following on from this, the airline began to explore other avenues for using biometric technologies. Its recent DCA pilot – although limited to a relatively small base of passengers – gives an important clue about the direction it will follow. Currently, the airline is analysing the results of that trial to determine its next steps.

It also has several other pilots underway, including one in Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport. Here, passengers can self-check their bag using CLEAR’s biometric platform.

“In Minneapolis, we’ve invested just over half a million dollars in self bag drop machines that use facial recognition technology to ensure the passenger who’s checking the bag is the person connected to that travel record,” says Joyce. “It allows them to print a bag tag, attach it to their bag and load the bag into the carousel themselves, which means moving through the bag check process 75% faster.”

As Joyce explains, in an airport like Minneapolis this amounts to 12,000 minutes of passenger time saved each day. Scaled across a wider network, the benefits could be substantial.

“Our customers tell us consistently that time is their most valuable asset, and they are very happy to do transactional activities themselves,” he says. “The more of this technology we can deploy, the more time and independence we give to our customers, and the more we free up our people from routine transactional processes to help our customers when they have a problem.”

Wider acceptance of biometrics

If these indications are anything to go by, Delta’s customers are comfortable with technologies of this nature. This seems to hold across the industry more broadly – in a 2016 study by ExpertFlyer, 79% of respondents said they would willingly use biometrics to speed up airport security, even if it meant relinquishing some privacy.

It’s perhaps an unsurprising statistic, if you consider the ways that biometrics are making inroads into everyday life. Many people already use their fingerprint to unlock their phones, and you can log into Windows 10 via a facial recognition feature. There is much more to come, not least the widely touted demise of the password as biometric technologies hit banking.

“We are running pilots in biometric technology for two reasons – number one, to make it easier for the passenger, and number two, essentially we see a future where a biometric identifier becomes your identity,” says Joyce. “We believe there will come a time when you won’t need to pull out your passport or driver’s license for identification, it will be a biometric footprint. So we’re rapidly developing our processes to be able to bring this to light for our customers.”

Familiar faces

Within air travel, passengers have had already had a while to familiarise themselves with the concept. As an example, many people now use e-Passports, which are issued by nearly 100 countries and contain biometric identifiers within their chip.

However, these kind of developments are spurred predominantly by national security concerns. Innovations like Delta’s, which are explicitly geared towards improving the passenger experience, suggest a change in customers’ attitudes – they will now surrender their data for no reason more important than saving time. This entails an enormous level of trust in their airline.

“We are very aware of the fact that biometrics comes with a certain concern for customers around identity and data,” says Joyce. “Our strategy so far has been to ensure we work with a technology partner who is an absolute expert in the space of biometrics and data storage. So although we do have our own data security team that’s constantly auditing the technology and processes our partners use, we don’t store the data ourselves.”

As well as teaming up with CLEAR (which maintains the highest security standards in the industry), Joyce says Delta will probably work with other partners in future.

“In international travel, where you work directly with the Customs & Border Protection (CBP), they have their own biometric database that is sometimes utilised for passenger identity, so we would access that database directly rather than working through CLEAR,” he explains. “We will work with all the appropriate partners we need to make sure we can bring this technology to life, but always with the underlying premise that data security and customer privacy comes first.”

Although it’s early days for Delta’s biometric technologies, along with the industry’s at large, momentum is gathering. With examples now starting to proliferate, the real question is how airlines can steal a march on the competition – how can they take the essential components of flying and create a product that’s unique to their brand?

“I think it all lies inside one word – innovation,” says Joyce. “We innovate at every opportunity throughout the travel ribbon, whether that’s in the aeroplanes we buy, the travel experiences we deliver in the airport, or the digital channels we use to interact with our customers. We want to deliver no fuss, no stress, peace of mind, an easy way to travel with us. That’s how we stay ahead of the competition and remain the greatest airline on earth.”

This article appears in the 2017 vol 2 edition of Future Airport

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