How facial recognition helps airports tackle growth challenges

Last updated: 22 November 2018

When looking at the transformation happening in air travel, we cannot deny the impact of digitization and the role of biometrics as a facilitator for all airport processes, from check-in to boarding.

Airports and airlines have a huge challenge ahead, as they will have to process twice as many passengers 15 years from now. According to IATA there will be 7.8 billion passengers by 2036. And since there is no way to double physical capacity and staff globally in that time, they will have to turn to technology to make sure that the existing manpower and infrastructure works more efficiently.

This is not just a blurry, far away projection, but is already happening. As of today, 77% of the world’s airports and 71% of airlines are investing heavily in biometric technology research and development to secure passenger throughput, according to SITA.

This shows that airports, airlines and border control have a good understanding of the extent to which biometric technology can help them address the challenge of the growing air passenger traffic.

The key challenges facing air travel today include repetition, stress, queues, security and unpredictability. With more and more people to clear, the traveller experience is likely to suffer which will have a negative effect on the brand image of both airports and airlines. This will also have a knock-on effect on the revenues from shops and restaurants in duty free zones. Fortunately, biometric technology is here to address these challenges and help transform the flow of passengers at terminals.

Benefits of biometric technologies for air travel

Biometric technologies automate traveller verification processes. This offers huge advantages, both in terms of facilitation and security. You will have seen how queues have been reduced through the deployment of eGates at border control. ABC Gates have recently brought additional efficiency gains by automating the ID verification process through facial recognition technology that allows a seamless, less intrusive and faster experience than fingerprint options.

  • Strengthened security

Biometrics can help spot people attempting to travel with a document that is genuine but was issued to someone else. Lookalike fraud is one of the most common document fraud, and time-constrained airline personnel would have a hard time verifying that the person presenting the document is indeed its holder.

However, biometric technology can quickly and accurately establish if the person who holds the ID document is who they claim to be. Border agencies already use biometrics for authentication at both departure and arrival, to spot passengers who are presenting a different ID document on arrival form the one they’ve used on departure. The same goes for passengers whose visa has expired on arrival at a certain destination.

  • Seamless traveller experience

The huge benefit of biometrics for passengers is that they will not need to present their passport and boarding pass several times, from the moment they enter the airport to the moment they board the plane. Instead, they will only be checked once, as early as possible in the process, and will then be able to breeze through all the control points without having to hand over any documents. This will be enabled through cameras installed at bag drop, security check points and boarding gates, which will identify passengers based only on their face.

This is not a futuristic vision, as 41% of airports have already implemented some sort of biometric identity system, and almost three quarters plan to have deployed such technologies by the end of 2021, according to SITA.

Key biometric technologies for seamless and secure passenger authentication

  • Facial Recognition

Facial recognition is a key technology for the seamless, fast and secure authentication of air travellers. We’re already seeing successful trials of the technology in the US and Australia installed on entry and exit of airports, and Dubai recently introduced a biometric tunnel. We have now reached a point where speed of capture and matching, image quality and cost of cameras are no longer an issue.

What’s needed is for these systems to be deployed in a real context, with light and temperature variations, where the different traveller attitudes towards the system can be tested. For example, during the first deployments of ABC gates using fingerprints, people were confused about where to put their finger for scanning even though it all seemed clear on paper and in the lab. Others were not comfortable with the systems and needed assistance to feel more confident.

Environmental factors should also be considered when deploying facial biometric technologies at airports. For instance, each gate might have a different orientation, with sunlight coming from different directions. This can impact the process of biometric capture, because of shadows and reflections created from the light. If the image captured is not good enough because of the environmental conditions, the traveller may be rejected although eligible to pass. This all needs to be fine-tuned on site and in real conditions, to maximize the desired result: less queues and faster controls with the same level of security.

  • Blockchain

Airports have complex ecosystems with many different processes, which are owned by different parties. For example, airlines own the check-in, bag drop and boarding, security is managed via an external third party and immigration by the government. Often the buyer of the system is not the one that controls it entirely, as it’s often the case with the ABC gates, where airports and border forces share responsibility.

So, all these stakeholders need to come together and collaborate on the new, simplified journey they want offer to travellers. Working together on a shared system while having very different business objectives is a challenge, so how can speed and security be reconciled? The challenge here is not about the technology itself, but it’s about finding the right balance between conflicting KPIs.

Blockchain is often cited as the magic solution in such multi-stakeholder environments. It is often referred to as the technology of choice for airlines and airports for verifying passenger identity. And it could be a possible technology enabler as it offers advantages for verifying information from multiple sources and adding transparency to the process.

Nevertheless, beyond the technology, what is key in solutions where traveler data is shared between several parties, both public and private, is to ensure data is thoroughly protected and user privacy respected.

Ensuring data privacy

The technology to secure data exists, with methods of data segregation and encryption, and capacity to control who accesses different kinds of data, for a chosen usage scenario. User privacy can also be ensured with opt-in/ opt-out mechanisms and by always giving a choice to travelers who might want to use traditional verification methods instead of a digitized pathway.

Besides the actual implementation of such biometric passenger clearance systems, all parties involved will have to be transparent and make it clear to users:

  • what their data is used for
  • who has access to it
  • how long it is kept in the system.

This is essential not only from a privacy standpoint, but also to ensure users trust the technology and are willing to use it.

Biometrics have the potential to transform the passenger experience in airports, with the capacity to link up all those different processes together and allow passengers to submit their credentials for verification only once. As mentioned before, if this is done as early as possible in the airport journey then passengers can just use their face as a way to prove they are who they claim to be as well as their eligibility to certain areas or services for any interaction in the airport.

For airports, airlines and border forces alike, automated processes leveraging biometrics promise less bottlenecks, higher security, and improved traveller satisfaction. There is also the potential for brand differentiation as well as having their staff focusing on what’s really important: security and seamless customer service.

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