If a year or more has passed since your trip, especially abroad, you may notice something different at airports in the United States: Further steps – from dropping your baggage to customs clearance – are automated with the help of biometric data.

biometrics are unique individual characteristics, such as B. Fingerprints, which can be used to automate and verify identity. They promise both more security and efficiency in the transport of travelers through an airport, where passengers usually have to present government-issued photo identification during the steps from check-in to boarding.

During the travel break caused by the pandemic, many airports, airlines, technology companies, and government agencies such as the Transportation Security Administration and the United States Customs and Border Protection continued to invest in biometric advances. The need for social distancing and contactless interactions only added to the urgency.

“The technologies have become much more sophisticated and the accuracy rate much higher,” says Robert Tappan, managing director of the trading group International Association for Biometrics + Identity, who described the impetus to relieve crowds and reduce contacts through these instruments as “COVID-accelerated”.

Many of the latest biometric developments use facial recognition, which is the National Institute of Standards and Technology recently found is at least 99.5 percent accurate, rather than iris scans or fingerprints.

“Iris scanning has been touted as the most foolproof,” said Sherry Stein, America’s technology director for SITA, a Switzerland-based biometric technology company. “For biometrics to work, you need to be able to match against a known trusted data source as you are trying to compare it with a stored data set. The face is the easiest because all of the documents we use to prove your identity – driver’s licenses, passports, etc. – rely on your face. “

Shortly after 9/11, Congress ordered one Entry and exit system Using Biometric Technology to Secure US Borders. Some travelers have raised privacy concerns, and while companies and agencies that use the technology say they don’t save the images, the systems largely rely on willing travelers to consent to its use.

“Privacy is as important as it should be, so most of these programs will be opt-in and the government is trying to increase that pre-screened audience,” said Jason Van Sice, vice president of aviation for the advanced detection systems division from NEC Corporation of Americawho has been in biometrics since 1971. He added that the business failure during the pandemic caused airlines and airports to automate as a cost-saving measure. “That really drove a digital transformation that was already underway.”

There are signs that the pandemic could fuel biometric adoption. In its recently published 2021 passenger survey, the International Air Transport Association found that 73 percent of passengers are willing to share their biometric data to improve airport processes, up from 46 percent in 2019.

Some of the benefits of biometrics may come from its everyday uses, such as: E.g. using facial recognition to open your phone or access your banking app.

“Implementation of seamless and contactless platforms is in full swing around the world and the biggest impact is expected to be felt by 2022, as planning and deployment typically take 12 to 18 months to be effective,” said Jeff Lennon, vice president, strategic Sales and global partnerships Vision box, which operates biometric technologies at more than 100 airports worldwide, including John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. “This is in line with the expected return of international mass transit next year.”

In short, technology-driven changes are coming rapidly and violently to airports, including the following advances in biometrics.

In November, Delta Air Lines has a new one Digital Identity Program for TSA PreCheck members at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport who can choose to use facial recognition to do everything from checking baggage to security checking to boarding their domestic flight.

To enroll, the passenger must enter their US passport number, which allows back-end verification of your identity with your passport photo, even if the new program is domestic only.

With the hands-free face scan, passengers can receive a baggage tag and then go to a special TSA PreCheck line for face scanning without the need for identification.

Delta currently has eight gates in its T-hall that are equipped with face recognition for domestic boarding; most of these flights go to business destinations such as New York City and Boston. Flyers do not need to show a boarding pass and their seat assignment appears on the face recognition screen after scanning.

Delta has been testing the technology since 2018 and plans to bring it to its Detroit hub later this year.

“We want to give our customers more time to travel by delivering consistently simplified, seamless and efficient experiences,” said Byron Merritt, Delta’s vice president of brand experience design.

Only about 44 percent of the US population have Passportswhich limits the number of passengers who can access biometric technologies based on passport photos. To make the technology available to more travelers, biometrics company SITA worked with United Airlines at San Francisco International Airport earlier this year to test a system that uses driver’s licenses and passports as evidence to compare them to facial scans for baggage screening and domestic flights. get in.

United said the test was successful, according to a spokeswoman, and “is constantly looking for other ways to use biometrics to optimize the travel experience for customers and we will have more to share in the coming weeks and months”.

SITA named the study thanks to the growth of. as successful Real ID, which unifies the requirements for driving licenses nationwide and will be mandatory for passengers by May 3, 2023. The company plans to launch the technology next year, but doesn’t want to say where.

When I was returning to Chicago O’Hare International Airport from Iceland in October, I went to the airport kiosk that usually scans and retrieves your passport and fingerprints Global entry Members like me passed customs and border guards within minutes. This time the kiosk just took my picture, spat out a copy that contained my name and passport details, and whipped me past agents in less than a minute.

Customs and Border Protection introduced facial recognition technology on kiosks used by Global Entry members in 2018. Of its 76 airports and pre-handling locations with Global Entry access, 42 use facial recognition.

Global Entry, which accelerates re-entry into the US for approved applicants who fingerprints, answers an extensive questionnaire, and pays US $ 100, has long relied on voluntary biometric submission for identity purposes.

In general, CBP uses face comparison technology to enter the United States at nearly 200 airports and 12 seaports used by cruise lines. It is currently testing the technology called Simplified Arrival on selected lanes for incoming traffic vehicles at the Anzalduas International Bridge Port of Entry near McAllen, Texas.

Getting on a plane using biometrics increases efficiency, according to the technology providers. Mr. Lennon of Vision Box, which conducts biometric boarding at New York’s Kennedy Airport, said it can board 400 people in 20 minutes, which is about half the normal boarding time.

Even before the pandemic, the three US-based airlines were experimenting with biometric boarding of outgoing international flights. American has biometric boarding at four gateways, including Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Chicago O’Hare, and is testing facial recognition technology for entry to the Admirals Club lounges at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport.

United offers the technology on international flights from the United States in Houston, Washington Dulles, San Francisco and Chicago O’Hare. A spokeswoman said more than 250 international one-way flights per week will be boarded biometrically and the airline plans to expand to additional hubs over the next year.

Delta allows international flyers to use their Face as a boarding pass at eight airports including Minneapolis and Kennedy. Biometric boarding is optional and anyone who wishes to be processed manually can use a boarding pass and passport.

Perhaps the most visible biometric provider at airports across the country is CLEAR, a subscription service that allows members to use its dedicated kiosks to evaluate your biometric data, confirm your identity and put you at the top of the TSA security line. Subscribers pay $ 179 per year and submit iris scans and fingerprints.

The company started since the pandemic CLEAR health pass, which is a free user digital health record that a person releases for expedited entry to participating sports venues based on things like vaccine requirements.

Elaine Glusac is a columnist for Frugal Traveler. Follow her on Instagram @eglusac.


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