In 2016, an average of 10.4 million people flowed through worldwide airports every day. Out of that number, I wonder how many miss their flights because they didn’t make it through security in time. Perhaps not a majority but to the few that it does happen, the feeling is not pleasant. Personally, I can remember my aunt’s feeling of frustration when on one occasion, her and my cousin were meant to travel together but when they got to airport security they got put into different security checkpoint lines and my aunts line took so much longer than she missed the flight and my cousin had to get on alone. They had gotten there at the same time but my cousin left without her because my aunt got stuck at security. These are the types of horror stories that make people dread traveling. Even those that do make their flights, can still feel a similar level of frustration due to long lines and hassle-filled checkpoints. Having to wait with all your belongings for long periods of time either before or after a long flight can be the worst part of a trip. All passengers hope for is a quick and easy transition through the airport to enjoy their trip or get home quickly. The only way to avoid the risk of missing your flight is arriving with enough time in advance but then you find yourself waiting longer before your flight and just making your travel longer.
Thankfully, airlines hate the waiting times perhaps just as much as travelers do and are looking to change that. They hate the time for different reasons than travelers do since they are looking to reduce times to increase capacity and utilization of the airports; but either way, reducing waiting times is beneficial for both sides. Airlines today are expanding their use of biometric technology to ease the boarding processes. To provide Airlines with the specialized help in this endeavor, Sita, an IT infrastructure company for aviation companies, is one example of a company that has been working to implement trials of their biometric systems in airports around the world. Using different systems, airports might in the near future be able to streamline the processes between check-in, bag drop, immigration, border control, security, and boarding. Biometric technology is being developed and implemented in hopes of matching your face to your passport from the very start and using that information to get you through each checkpoint from start to finish. Some airports around the world are starting to see parts of it implemented in order to test their use. Depending on these initial trials, the complete systems may soon come to all airports near you.
In 2016 in Brisbane, Sita implemented a system that allows passengers to enroll into the system before check in so that once they are going to check-in, their passport, boarding card, and face image are used at check-in and then afterward more easily used to pass through other control points. With the information enrolled in the system, the passage through the rest of the system becomes more effective. At the boarding gate, they also just have to look at the camera and are able to board the plane quickly.
To further ease the process, biometric technology is also being used for luggage check-in. Typically, even when passengers are able to check in online, they still have to wait to drop off their bags before proceeding to security. Delta Air Lines has changed that as they opened the first biometric service bag drop in the U.S. in 2017 at the Minneapolis-St Paul airport. The airline hoped to free up more Delta employees to deal with customers rather than deal with luggage check. The system also serves as a verification process for bags as the technology records the passenger dropping the bag.
British Airways is another airline that has been working hard to improve their customer experience with technology. They have been testing the use of “biometric e-Gates” in Los Angeles International Airport since November 2017 and is now expanding their use to New York (JFK), Miami (MIA), and Orlando (MCO). These gates use facial recognition to match flyers with their passports, visas and or immigration photos. This system eliminates the need to show a boarding pass or identification when getting on a plane. However, this system still requires passengers to show identification when they go through airport security. Nonetheless, it is one step closer to the ideal system which allows a streamlined process all throughout. One version of this comprehensive system that is still being developed is called a “single token travel” which allows passengers to check-in once through an app and then. Although online check-in has long been used by most airlines, this app would allow the user to scan their passport and take a selfie which is then matched to ePassport data to allow them to ease through security checkpoints. However, this type of system will require a great degree of accuracy before it can be fully relied on. The goal is efficiency and technology is the key.
There are some major challenges that this kind of technology needs to overcome before being widely implemented in all major airports. Besides regulatory issues and proper federal procedures, the technology is also facing challenges to its accuracy. The technology is not yet reliably detecting travelers using the wrong documents. This weakness in the technology provides a window for individuals to use documentation that does not actually belong to them and pass for another person. Given that the technology removes the human interaction aspect, there would be no employee to question any slight discrepancies. The lack of reliability is a big challenge for companies like Sita, especially considering airport security has followed a trend of increasing security because of security threats. Another large challenge for this technology is the fact that reports have proven that facial recognition systems frequently show biases against certain groups of people. This is an issue that has popped up with other facial recognition technology and there has been no solution developed within this industry either. The technology will need to be able to adapt to slight changes in a user’s appearance the same way a human could before the technology can truly make the process painless for travelers. Imagine not being able to pass through security because the technology doesn’t recognize you without the makeup in your picture. Missing your flight over this might be even more frustrating than missing it over long lines. The prospect of a smooth process at an airport is exciting to say the least. Although it may take some time, I will definitely look forward to the airport more once this type of system is in place.