Biometrics at Airports

The number of travelers is growing, which means longer lines, more paperwork, and more work—for airlines, airport operations, vendors, law enforcement, and passengers. To create a faster, more seamless travel experience, airlines are implementing biometric technology, which allows passengers to complete check-in and go through security or passport control without having to deal with a human agent.

Biometrics are measurements of human biology unique to each person—like your fingerprint, your face, and your voice. Biometric authentication is a way of identifying individuals based on these unique physiological features. You’re already familiar with this technology if you use your fingerprint to access your smartphone or certain apps (e.g. banking apps).

Some airports are implementing the use of facial recognition, which can verify the identity of travelers more efficiently, accurately, and securely than human agents alone. Because of this, according to SITA, an air-transport technology company, 77% of airports and 71% of airlines plan to invest heavily in biometric identification in the next couple years.

How are airports implementing biometric technology?

For facial scanning and recognition at airports, a camera, usually at a self-service kiosk, takes your photo, which the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Traveler Verification Service matches to a photo the Department of Homeland Security already has of you (it might be from your passport or other travel documentation). The photo is also matched to the photo gallery pre-built from the flight manifest. CBP stores the scanned photos of U.S. citizens for no longer than 12 hours post-verification, after which they are deleted.

Here’s a snapshot of some of the airlines and airports that are using this tech:

  • American Airlines has biometric boarding via facial recognition for passengers departing from Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), its largest hub, and Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). If the system fails for any reason, an available agent will manually clear the traveler using the regular clearance process.
  • British Airways has implemented facial-recognition-assisted boarding in London and LA. The airline says biometric boarding gates in Los Angeles allow them to board 400 passengers onto a plane in 22 minutes, cutting the usual time in half.
  • Delta Airlines launched their first biometric terminal in Atlanta, GA, and has since expanded the service across additional airports, including Detroit (DTW), Minneapolis (MSP), and Salt Lake City (SLC).
  • Japan Airlines offers self-service bag drops and facial recognition biometric boarding at Narita International Airport (JAL). With the self-bag-drop system, passengers may check in through the airport kiosk and print their individual baggage tags. Then the traveler simply drops off their luggage and proceeds to the boarding gate.
  • United Airlines has tested facial recognition technology at gates for international travel in Houston (IAH), Washington Dulles (IAD), and San Francisco (SFO) airports.

Opting out

Travelers with a U.S. passport may choose not to use the new system and board with their regular boarding pass, although your photo will still be a part of the flight gallery. The CBP has verified that they do not use the technology to biometrically track U.S. citizens or other passengers. The facial recognition system only replaces the manual comparison of using physical travel documents and a human agent.