Speedy Travel

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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

 

9 comments

  1. Great post – I think you did a good job introducing the problem, describing some of the new technologies being used in screenings/check-ins, and wrapping up with challenges ahead. As someone who traveled 1-2 times per month for nearly 4 years at a previous job, I’m no stranger to the struggles of airport check-ins. I’m all for biometric screening once the accuracy improves. I lean towards trusting the technology more than the human at the end of a 8 hour shift that looks between my face and ID for 1/2 a second before letting me pass. Also, I like the idea of making luggage drop-off easier and quicker. There was no bigger frustration to me than doing an online check-in from home and then getting to the airport to pretty much re-check-in to drop off my bag.
    On a related note, last year our MBA economics professor introduced us to an idea that has stuck with me: a rational person should miss their flight sometimes.
    https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/case-missing-your-next-airline-flight-180951650/

  2. I think that this type of technology would be great for airports, but I do agree that it should not be implemented until they are sure it is working as it is supposed to. If the technology is going to have some errors or show bias to certain groups, maybe they could work to fix these problems and do some trial runs to ensure as close to 100 percent accuracy as they can before actually using the system in airports. I feel like flying is already something that is high risk and makes people nervous, so I don’t think people would mind missing their flight every once in a while if it means that security measures are being properly taken. Until the technology is better, I think airports would be better off doing it the old fashioned way.

  3. I completely agree with @katherinekorol about the process already being stressful enough and the preoccupation that people will always have about being safe first and foremost before speediness. I had no idea that something with this kind of potential was being pursued, but it does make sense that airlines would want to increase efficiency of the flight process just as much as customers! I want to be optimistic but the regulatory hoops that need to be jumped through make me cautiously optimistic about this process. So far the biggest time saver is TSA Pre-Check and Global Entry and both of these are under the FAA’s purview; so while I am hopeful that airlines will be able to speed up the process themselves, I am not convinced it will be easy at all.

  4. I completely agree! The issue is the accuracy of this technology. When the IPhone X announced the face ID lock, they claimed that it was accurate as their advertisements showed the feature working even if you had glasses or grew a beard etc. But, in reality people of certain races are more likely to get away with unlocking someone else’s phone if they look similar.
    Some time savers can be implemented with use of simple tech. Within the past half year I’ve noticed that some TSAs have implemented a new bin system that is automatic. This means that they don’t need a body moving the bins whenever they run out on one side, it just runs on a conveyer belt of some sort. This not only makes it easier for the staff to focus on other aspects of the security point, but also I felt like it made the line go by faster. Good post!

  5. I agree with others that security/accuracy is a significant matter in determining this technology’s success and viability. However, the inefficiency in the airline industry is quite significant, especially during major travel seasons (holidays, etc.) when most people travel at the same time. The security check is important, but when this inefficiency is creating significant negative experiences to so many people, I believe the implementation of this technology is necessary (with a combination of human interference involved). I doubt this technology will ever be 100% accurate, especially the cases for those who made a significant change in their physical appearance via makeup, plastic surgery, or even losing/gaining weight, and the race bias plays a significant role as well. As a person who has traveled internationally several times, such technology is becoming a must, not just a convenience, and they must also work on marketing their new technology development so that people can start adapting to it as the development goes further. The marketing aspect is about as much important as the development/implementation itself, since people will not know how to take advantage of it if they are not aware of the tech enhancement.

  6. This just happened to me! Haha. I was flying from Atlanta to Boston after a conference on a rainy Sunday. It took me an 1hr to get through security and I missed my flight. Then I was told I couldn’t fly out until Tuesday. Therefore, I had to buy another ticket from a different airline. Then, i had to wait until 4am the next day to get the luggage that had flown on the other airline without me. This was the first time I ever missed a flight. Very horrendous. I am all for any technology that says get this guy to the plane fast!

  7. Nice post. I’ve been impressed with how well the airline industry has digitized. I know there are still some horror stories (like those described by @bceagle1), in general flying has gotten incredibly efficient compared to the old days thanks to technology.

  8. As someone who loves to travel I completely agree that there need to be improvements to speed up the security process. As people choose air travel more and more, the problem will only become more relevant. I actually was just flying back to Boston after the spring break from Atlanta which is the busiest airport in the world and was frustrated about the long wait in the security line. However, it gave me time to observe the process. One thing I noticed is that most of the time the bottleneck of the process is not the ID check but rather the screening of bags and personal belongings. Similarly, when people board the plane the real bottleneck is not the scanning of boarding passes, but the time it takes for everyone to put their carry-ons in the bins. So although I 100% agree with you that biometrics and facial recognition technology would help a lot to improve the process, I believe that airlines and airports also need to work on speeding up the screening of personal belonging if they are really to make the security check faster and less stressful for passengers.

  9. Ever since 9/11 security at airports has been much stronger, but with that comes these painful travel stories like the one you described. It is hard to find a balance between the proper amount of security and efficiency/speed, but I think we will get there. Companies like Sita are very close to making those traveling nightmares a thing of the past. One other thing that will help this type of technology take the next step is trust. You hinted at it in the blog, and trust is something we have discussed with nearly every topic in class. Not only does the technology have to work, but people also have to trust that it will work and let them as well as only the right people on their flight. I think if someone taking this class in a few years revisits this topic it will look a whole lot different, and the technology will be significantly more efficient.

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