Low Cost & Regional

Facial recognition: Adoption of biometric technology at airports

Facial recognition
photo_camera Heathrow Airport, Terminal 5A, airside, automated self-boarding gates, April 2017.

Airline passengers will increasingly use their face as their identity at the airport. We look at the adoption of biometric technology for facial recognition and the concerns that come with it.

In March, Collins Aerospace and JetBlue announced they would enhance the passenger boarding experience with advanced biometric screenings. The trial, at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) uses a biometric facial scanning process implemented by Collins Aerospace.

Air travellers simply step up to the camera for a facial match against their travel document and then proceed to board the aircraft. The technology is gathering pace at several other locations around the world. British Airways has started using new biometric facial recognition technology on selected international flights.

This technology means that passengers no longer need to present their passport or boarding pass at the departure gate – only when they check-in and go through security. Instead, travellers simply look into a camera prior to boarding, wait for their biometric data to be verified and then walk onto the aircraft.

Facial recognition: Biometric identity
Farrell says biometric identity will be key to smoothing the passenger journey

In the UK, London Heathrow Airport is preparing for a full-scale roll-out of new biometric services from this summer. The airport is set to have the world’s largest deployment of biometrically enabled products including bag drops and self-boarding gates as part of a £50 million project.

Currently, manual authentication means that passengers need to present different forms of ID such as boarding cards, booking reference numbers as well as their passports to different agents to show that they’re authorised to travel.

Heathrow has already begun using facial recognition in some stages of the passenger journey, both on entry to the UK at the border with the biometric e-gates. The technology is also used for domestic journeys through the airport, but this will be the first time that Heathrow will use the technology at every stage of the departing passenger’s journey.

This has the potential to allow for greater personalisation of passenger services, which is useful for passengers requiring additional assistance. IATA research shows that 64 per cent of passengers would choose to share their biometric data in exchange for a better experience when travelling.

The industry has been using biometrics for some time already, primarily for border security by immigration services.

“As the technology improves and is enhanced by artificial intelligence and as passengers are becoming increasingly more accepting of using it to improve the travel experience, biometrics has started to spread into the passenger processing environment,” Megan Strader, senior media relations specialist at Collins Aerospace tells Low Cost & Regional Airline Business.

Facial recognition, biometric technology, airports
Passenger processing is sped up with biometric technology

The last 12 months have seen a rapid increase in the number of airports and airlines committing to trials of biometric identity management solutions.

Strader says the success of these early deployments, coupled with improved technology and passenger acceptance, should see this market continue to accelerate with fully contracted deployments and the biometric enablement of additional touchpoints besides self-boarding.

She says solution providers will start to look beyond the biometric starting point of ‘single-token’ travel and work with customers to determine next-generation use cases that will further enhance the travel experience.

SITA is also deploying the technology at various airports. Using SITA’s Smart Path, for example, passengers use existing self-service points to register when they first arrive at the airport to check-in then simply use their face to pass through every subsequent checkpoint, from bag-drop, through to security and boarding.

“We are also exploring the ability to register your biometric data before you arrive at the airport using your mobile phone and have trialled this at various airports,” says Sean Farrell, portfolio director, passenger processing and self service at SITA.

Smart Path is already being used at airports including Boston Logan, Orlando International Airport, Athens Eleftherios Venizelos and Hamad International Airport.

Farrell reports that the results have been positive: “At Orlando, British Airways are using our biometric solution to complete a US government exit and an airline boarding check-in one step. This has allowed the airline to board almost 240 passengers in 10 minutes.”

SelfPass, the technology deployed by Collins Aerospace, requires no pre-registration (at least for JetBlue at JFK). According to Collins Aerospace, SelfPass doesn’t just benefit the passenger, it enables airports and airlines to implement and grow their biometric capabilities at various touchpoints by being uniquely scalable and hardware independent.

By implementing a more efficient boarding process, airlines can improve on-time departures and increase passenger satisfaction.

Controversial technology

Recent media reports have raised some concerns about facial recognition technology. It uses a complex algorithm that recognises each person’s unique facial characteristics, but appearances can often change. Also, there have been cases where some systems (outside the aviation industry) have failed to recognise female features or people with dark skin.

Facial recognition: biometric identity, airports
There is a rapid increase in the number of airports and airlines committing to trials of biometric identity

Strader says technology has improved to the point in which facial recognition is intuitive enough to recognise most changes in a person’s appearance. She says trials of the system from multiple vendors have shown facial image capture rate accuracies of greater than 98 per cent.

“One of the benefits of utilising biometrics in airports is to free up agents so that they can deal with exceptions, rather than checking each passport. In the short-term, these agents will be able to assist the small percentage of passengers that experience difficulties in the facial matching process, or those that would rather speak to an agent than use a self-service solution.”

Farrell believes the accuracy of systems in use at airports is very high. “In airports, we are generally dealing with small data sets – for example all passengers on a flight – allowing for much greater accuracy than matching against huge databases across a wide population of a city, state or country.” In the US, for example, he says the success rate of matching is greater than 99 per cent and takes less than a second.

“Typically, we are searching against images from passports, which have a 10-year lifespan. This means that the age difference between the live subject and stored image is on average a few years, which results in very high accuracy using today’s technology.”

Farrell adds that the speed of this process frees up agents to focus on those 1 per cent where further manual confirmation of  identity is required: “This provides an overall more efficient and secure process.”

Some in the industry feel passengers should always have the ability to opt-out of any facial recognition system. Privacy concerns associated with storing facial images in a database are currently a major issue, so how should this be addressed by the aviation industry?

Farrell assures that passengers always have the option to opt-out of using biometric technology at airports by going to the counter and being processed by an agent.

“Regarding privacy concerns, SITA takes its responsibility very seriously. We always honour the rights of our customers and their end customers to data privacy and protection.”

Farrell states biometric data is processed by SITA in accordance with applicable law and the relevant SITA customer’s instructions. Data is stored only to the extent and only for as long as is necessary and allowed in providing the service involving biometric data processing for which SITA has been engaged.

Facial recognition, Heathrow airport
Heathrow has a 50 million facial recognition project

The heightened security requirements in aviation – which demand the sharing of personal data and the evolution of technologies such as biometrics and cloud computing – have justifiably led to an increase in privacy concerns, as Strader acknowledges.

She says in an increasingly ‘connected’ ecosystem, the security around such data is imperative: “Critically, biometric solutions from Collins Aerospace require passengers to opt-in to use the biometric screening process in order to leverage the benefits of seamless, single-token travel.

“Personal data is stored in a GDPR-compliant database while the passenger is enrolled and is erased immediately on the decision to opt-out of the service. Airlines, airports and suppliers have been focused around providing solutions and workflows that minimise the risk of data privacy,” Strader explains.

Investment and deployment

Farrell won’t give a general number for the investment required explaining that it varies from airport to airport, and from airline to airline. It depends on the size of the airport, the number of passengers involved, and the IT infrastructure already in place.

“However, I can say that our approach at SITA is to leverage the existing IT infrastructure in the airport, making it more cost-effective and quicker to implement our Smart Path solution.”

He says the greatest challenge with deployment is the collaboration between the airports, airlines and border agencies, at both policy and functional levels. “When there is a common understanding between these stakeholders, the process works extremely well, as we are seeing with the US with the Customs and Border Protection agency in various US airports.”

SITA’s long-term focus is to drive a common standard that is accepted globally which will allow passengers to use one identity across all airports anywhere in the world. “To this end, we are working with organisations such as IATA to achieve that common understanding and biometric standard.”

Whilst the performance of biometric capture devices has greatly improved in recent years, Strader reckons the cost of such technology has lowered considerably, making such solutions more accessible.

“Furthermore, those solutions that easily integrate to any existing airport infrastructure (check-in kiosks, bag drops, self-boarding gates, and so on) will help minimise capital expenditure costs, as integration efforts are less intensive and deployment time reduced,” she says.

Many of the early adopters for biometrics are also factoring in the return on investment of such a solution in their decision to invest. Using biometric technology for self-boarding and at touchpoints such as self-bag drop can increase an airport’s efficiency.

The biggest challenge for mass deployment of these technologies, according to Strader, could be the integrations with airline systems that are required for a truly seamless solution. “There are many vendors capable of providing a biometric solution at one airport, for one airline, at one or two touchpoints, for one journey.

“But only those that have existing connections and experience with all airline systems can provide common-use solutions for multiple airlines in multiple countries on multiple journeys without considerable (and costly) integration efforts.”

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