Airports are undergoing rapid technological improvements, including advances in biometrics that authenticate identity and expedite security procedures for passengers who opt into the programs.
If you haven’t flown in a year or more, especially overseas, you may notice something new at American airports: Biometrics are being used to automate more tasks, from inspecting a suitcase to clearing customs.
Biometrics, such as fingerprints, are distinctive individual qualities that can be used to automate and verify identity.
\They promise increased security and speed in moving passengers through an airport where passengers are ordinarily obliged to present government-issued picture identification at every step from check-in to boarding.
Many airports, airlines, IT businesses, and government agencies such as the Transportation Security Administration and United States Customs and Border Protection continued to invest in biometric breakthroughs during the travel ban caused by the pandemic. The requirement for social distance and contactless interactions heightened the urgency.
“The technologies have gotten much more sophisticated and the accuracy rate much higher,” said Robert Tappan, the managing director for the trade group International Biometrics + Identity Association, who called the impetus to ease crowds and reduce contact through these instruments “COVID-accelerated.”
Rather than iris scanning or fingerprints, many of the most current biometric advancements use facial recognition, which the National Institute of Standards and Technology recently verified to be at least 99.5 percent accurate.
“Iris-scanning has been touted as the most foolproof,” said Sherry Stein, the head of technology in the Americas for SITA, a Switzerland-based biometrics tech company.
“For biometrics to work, you have to be able to match to a known trusted source of data because you’re trying to compare it to a record on file. The face is the easiest because all the documents we use that prove your identity — driver’s licenses, passports, etc. — rely on the face.”
Congress mandated a biometric entrance and exit system shortly after 9/11 to secure the United States’ borders. Some travelers have highlighted privacy concerns, and while the companies and agencies that utilize the technology claim they do not keep the photographs, the systems rely on willing visitors who agree to their use.
“Privacy is a major concern, as it should be, so most of these programs are going to be opt-in, and the government is trying to grow that pre-vetted audience,” said Jason Van Sice, the vice president of aviation in the Advanced Recognition Systems Division of NEC Corporation of America, which has been working in biometrics since 1971.
He added that the loss of business during the pandemic pushed airlines and airports to automate as a cost-saving measure. “That’s really driven a digital transformation that was already underway.”
There are hints that the epidemic is hastening the adoption of biometrics. The International Air Transport Association recently released its 2021 passenger survey, which indicated that 73 percent of passengers are eager to give their biometric data to improve airport processes, up from 46 percent in 2019.
Some of the biometrics’ popularity stems from its practical applications, such as utilizing facial recognition to unlock your phone or log into your banking app.
“The implementation of seamless and contactless platforms is currently at full speed all over the globe, and the major impact of this is expected to be felt by 2022, as planning and deployment usually need 12 to 18 months to be effective,” said Jeff Lennon, the vice president of strategic sales and global partnerships at Vision-Box, which operates biometric technology in more than 100 airports globally, including New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. “This is well-aligned with the expected return of mass international travel next year.”
In brief, airports are undergoing rapid technological advances, including the advancements in biometrics listed below.