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Digital health passes bring biometrics closer in aviation


The year is 2021, the world is gradually emerging from a global pandemic and corporate and leisure travelers are desperate to get back to the skies.

While generally most agree that digitalization has accelerated during the pandemic, travel is faced with huge challenges to reopen safely.

Airports and airlines are already highlighting the challenges they face of ramping up, while having to maintain social distancing measures and therefore move passengers through the various checkpoints rapidly.

Heathrow Airport said recently that it was taking 20 minutes to process the COVID-related paperwork for every passenger and stressed the need for digital health passes as the way forward.

But digital health passes could have a much more long-term benefit as they boost the development of biometrics, particularly facial recognition, in travel, to create a far more seamless experience.

At the recent PhocusWire Pulse Safer and Seamless event, Alan Hayden Murray, head of airport, passenger and security products for IATA, said digital identification would be a “game-changer” for aviation going forward.

He added that all the technology is already in place to enable passengers to create a digital version of their passport on their mobile device and then use this, in conjunction with a selfie image, to pass seamlessly through the airport simply by looking at a cameras.

Some even say 2021 is the year for biometric technology to really take hold in travel and many recent developments support this view.

Biometric steps

Last November, Lufthansa and Swiss Airlines announced that passengers traveling on selected flights through Frankfurt and Munich would be able to pass through security and the boarding gate using biometric technology.

The carriers are the launch customers of the Star Alliance biometrics initiative announced in 2019 as a partnership with NEC Corporation to develop a biometric identity platform.

The platform is an opt-in system providing Star Alliance customers with a contactless experience for check-in, bag-drop, lounge access and boarding gates.

For Lufthansa the initiative is on top of the the biometric U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s “Traveler Verification System” it has been using for boarding for some time from U.S. airports. 

Meanwhile, Spirit Airlines is working with Amadeus to use biometric facial recognition for boarding flights for international departures at Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport.

Amadeus says the system is scalable and can be used across check-in kiosks, bag-drop and boarding gates.

More recently aviation technology specialist SITA announced a proof of concept project which uses facial recognition to provide smoother entry and exit for Etihad crew to the Crew Briefing Center Etihad crew.

And Iberia announced in February that it is testing facial recognition technology at Madrid-Barajas to speed up passenger processing.

Investment boost

Research from SITA reveals airlines plan to double investment in self-boarding via biometrics with 82% saying they plan to have implemented the technology in 2023 alongside ID documentation.

For boarding using biometrics alone, 57% of carriers in SITA’s 2020 Air Transport IT Insights say they will have the technology implemented in 2023.

There are countless other biometric developments going on in the air travel industry, and other parts of the travel industry with organizations such as IATA with One ID and the World Economic Forum’s work with Accenture, VisionBox, Air Canada, KLM and related airports on the Known Traveler Digital Identity, all paving the way for biometric travel.

However, a coordinated and collaborative approach is needed and some are increasingly skeptical that the industry and governments can achieve this.

Renaud Irminger, chief executive of Travizory, a platform using biometric and mobile technologies to remove travel friction, sees huge progress in facial recognition, with machine learning and artificial intelligence improving the algorithms behind the technology and, bringing the cost of development down.

“With Amazon you can create an account in a few minutes and use Rekognition. It has basically become a commodity which is almost free.”

The Amazon Web Services technology enables developers to add image and video analysis to their applications that can “detect, analyze and compare faces for a wide variety of user verification” according to the AWS website.

Face off

However, even with the costs coming down and the accelerated pace of digitalization, Irminger says that the traveler authorization work that Travizory has been doing with the Seychelles government highlights the complexities.

“Even at a country level they are not able to standardize. With 200 people you can have 40 different PCR test certificates, all with different formats and different data fields.” 

Unsurprisingly, Irminger is a proponent of a standardized approach to biometrics for air travel and views the Star Alliance initiative as a step forward in that passengers only need to enrol once.

“At the end the goal is to make a better experience and improve the queues and now that is 20 times more important. A standard has to exist because a traveler from Australia leaving Sydney to go to Singapore on Qantas, in transit at Changi and jumping on an Air France flight to Paris and then connecting to Nice with a a standard to use the face for travel, will have multiple enrolment points and lose all the benefit.

“It has to be the traveler who enrols once and pushes the biometric element to each of the stakeholders or via an alliance or the airline.”

Irminger adds that the IATA One ID is the most advanced initiative and that the airline organization has a history of being able to create standards and so “should be in a position to drive such a standard.” 

Heidrun Holin, senior product manager, product management ground, Lufthansa, says a few standards are likely to emerge to help with the interoperability of different systems.

A further challenge, according to Irminger, is the “confusion among decision makers” in different countries over whether biometrics are “good or evil.”

It’s an interesting discussion with on the one hand, millions of consumers already using their faces to access mobile devices and applications while on the other hand, the issue of governments spying on citizens is a hot topic with little known on what information is gathered, how it is collected and if and how it is stored.

Irminger points out that using the face for travel should put travelers in control of their data, enabling them to opt in, provide value in terms of the improvement to the experience and therefore be perceived as a good thing.

He adds that when people are out and about in the street, their face is not private anyway.

IATA’s Murray Hayden says passengers are already sharing all the data with governments when they travel but with the biometric developments, it will be safer and more efficient.

Technology of the not too distant future

Safety and efficiency will surely be the main drivers to take biometric travel to the next level.

Lufthansa’s Holin agrees that it will be a gradual uptake of the technology with biometric elements being introduced to existing self-service technologies.

The company started with boarding touchpoints and plans to increase the number of boarding gates and add further touchpoints such as lounge access and bag drop.

She adds that biometrics is “clearly the technology of the future for passenger identification” and not too far into the future either.

Holin says:

“As airports (and other infrastructure) around the world are adopting biometrics, we expect biometrics to be the new normal of identification in only a few years.”



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