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Biometrics Gain Traction as Boarding Credential: Facial Recognition Clears Airline Passengers

Image courtesy of Delta
Published On
Jan 24, 2019

The next time you head to the airport, there is a good chance you will verify your identity with the latest biometrics. Major airlines have been rolling out new programs and test beds, and they have been increasingly adopting digital biometric and facial recognition technology to process passengers.

Last December, Delta Airlines introduced the first biometric terminal in the United States at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, expanding the technology to its global hub in Detroit shortly after. According to a company-issued press briefing, the launch in Atlanta means Delta is “designing the airport biometric experience blueprint for the industry,” stated Gil West, Delta’s COO. The idea behind’s Delta’s implementation of the technology is to promote a more seamless safety and security experience for customers and increase the opportunity for employee interaction with passengers.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta is the busiest airport in the world, according to the Airports Council International. The airport also recently launched a major, multibillion-dollar capital improvement plan called ATLNext, a 20-year blueprint targeting modernization and growth.

Biometrics speeds up passenger processing

The transportation industry, particularly airlines and airports, are bullish on biometrics. Though the technology has been around for decades, improvements in computer processing, software and digital identification technologies have raised capabilities and reliability significantly, while overall costs for hardware and implementation have dropped. Systems are stable and easy to operate, and they have an extremely low false-positive rating. IT provider SITA said in its SITA 2018 Air Transport IT Insights report that airlines and airports are making biometric technology adoption a priority: over the next three years 77 percent of airports and 71 percent of airlines are planning major programs or research and development in biometric identification management.

Delta developed its biometric plan for the Maynard H. Jackson International Terminal in partnership with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Customers flying on Delta, Aeromexico, Air France, KLM or Virgin Atlantic Airways can use the technology to check in at self-service kiosks; drop off checked baggage; provide identification at TSA checkpoints; and board a flight at any gate at the terminal. CBP also uses biometrics to identify and process international passengers entering the United States. Delta said the technology saves an average of two seconds per customer at boarding or up to nine minutes for the boarding of a wide body aircraft, with less than 2 percent of passengers opting out of the service.

Delta began rolling out biometric touch point terminals at Hartsfield-Jackson beginning in mid-October 2018. On the heels of the successful full terminal roll out, Delta, in partnership with CBP and the Wayne County Airport Authority, also expanded the use of facial recognition to all 14 international gates at McNamara Terminal in the Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW). With this move, any customer flying direct to an international destination from DTW has the option of using facial recognition technology at boarding, and this year, the airline will expand facial recognition technology at the Detroit airport, encompassing curb-to-gate capabilities for customers.

When a customer enters the terminal or begins the boarding process, the facial recognition program scans an image of their face and sends it to an existing cloud-based CBP database. The system then instantly matches the image against the passport photo or driver’s license photo already on file with CBP and sends back a yes or no determination on whether they are cleared to board.

American Airlines launched its first biometric boarding pilot program at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). The program, which began in December 2018, will be used at LAX for 90 days as American Airlines evaluates its potential expansion to more flights and locations throughout its global network.

Despite ongoing privacy concerns, acceptance for biometrics technology seems to be growing. Few Americans want government to limit use of facial recognition technology, particularly for public safety or airport screening, according to January 2019 research by the Center for Data Innovation. The Center’s national online poll indicated that only one in four Americans (26 percent) think government should strictly limit the use of facial recognition technology—and that support drops even further if it comes at the expense of public safety.

About the Author

Deborah L. O'Mara

Freelance Writer

O’MARA writes about security, life safety and systems integration and is managing director of DLO Communications. She can be reached at dlocommunications@gmail.com or 773.414.3573.

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