Goodbye boarding pass, hello fingerprints: How biometrics is changing travel

Imagine this: You arrive at the airport with your expertly packed carry-on, stroll past security without showing your ID, and head straight to your gate. Once there, you get on the plane without ever pulling out a boarding pass or interacting with a gate agent.

This experience may sound far-fetched, or like a scene out of “The Minority Report,” but it might be closer than you think thanks to the growing use of biometrics--technology that uses unique physical characteristics, like your fingerprints, voice, or face for identification--at airports.

Vision-Box, a provider of biometric-based solutions, recently introduced Seamless Gateway technology at the Passenger Terminal Expo. The system uses facial recognition to enable contactless and seamless movement through airport checkpoints. The state-of-the-art eGates capture facial images on the fly, matching them against an existing database. The verification happens almost instantly, allowing passengers to breeze through checkpoints without stopping to engage with airline or airport officials to show them your driver’s license or boarding pass. The Seamless Gateway would work in conjunction with agencies like the TSA, so passengers would still have to remove items like their shoes, and walk through the body scanner.

“[This] heralds a revolution in the dynamic between passenger, airport, airlines and border authorities, “ said Vision-Box CEO Miguel Leitmann.

The plan is to test the Seamless Gateway at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, which is currently doing a three-month trial using facial recognition biometrics at a boarding gate for KLM airlines. The trial is very preliminary and requires volunteers to register by scanning their passport, boarding pass, and face in the boarding area. When it comes time to board, they simply walk through the facial scan and get on the plane. For security purposes, all of the information KLM gathers during the trial is erased after 10 hours.

Vision-Box already has some form of its technology in more than 70 airports around the world. Elke Oberg is the marketing manager at Cognitec Systems, a company that works with Vision-Box by providing facial recognition software for automated passport control. She says one of the company’s current focal points is to streamline immigration procedures with self-service eGates designed to move passengers through the traditionally slow process within 14 seconds.

Airports in Europe, Australia and New Zealand are already using this technology, but the US has been slower to experiment, for several reasons, including cost and concerns over privacy.

That said, facial recognition technology has been slowly inching its way into American airports. In January 2016, John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK) in New York deployed Vision-Box biometric passport authentication technology that uses facial recognition technology to match travelers’ faces to the photo on their passport. Last May, NEC Corporation of America (NEC) started working with the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to provide facial comparison technology at JFK with the goal of enhancing border security and accurately verifying US arrivals from international countries.

While facial recognition tech is growing fast, fingerprint identification technology also continues to develop at lightning speed.

Since 2010, CLEAR has been providing customers with the option to use their fingerprints to bypass long security lines at airports. It’s the only company using fingerprint identification in the US, and is certified by the Department of Homeland Security. To enroll, applicants simply visit the airport to provide a photo, fingerprints and an iris image at one of the CLEAR pods. If approved, they pay $179 annually to use the CLEAR lane at the airport, bypassing the long security queue and heading straight to the screening area. CLEAR is being used in 21 US airports (including in New York, San Francisco and Denver), and is expanding fast, with plans to open operations in LAX this year.

Alas, neither technology is foolproof, but trials at airports around the world are quickly working out the kinks. The biggest potential hurdle with biometrics may have less to do with the technology and more to do with who will pay for it.

Where technology is concerned, advancements in biometrics are moving faster than ever. If the issues of cost and privacy are appropriately addressed, we could see a future where our finger becomes our boarding pass and our eyes double as passports.