Delta has launched the first end-to-end biometric terminal in the US, promising to speed up the passenger experience at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport.
Facial recognition technology can be used to confirm passenger identity at check-in, bag drop, security and boarding, removing the need to show a passport and boarding pass at each step.
After a partial roll-out in October, the facial-scanning cameras will now be used for all international flights from Terminal F on Delta and its joint venture partners Aeromexico, Air France, KLM and Virgin Atlantic.
John Wagner, deputy commissioner at US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which has been developing the technology with Delta and other partners, said the move could cut waiting time by around 40 per cent.
Explaining how the facial scanning works, Wagner told journalists at Atlanta airport on Thursday: “We already had a secure CBP database of photographs from passports, visas and arrivals.
“When the airline transmits the list of who is on the flight to us, we can pull up those photographs. We then templatise the photograph, which means taking your picture and turning it into a mathematical formula. We put that into a secure part of the cloud with a unique identifier.
“When your photo is taken [at the biometric gates], it’s transmitted through the internet to us. That comes into our cloud space, is templatised, matched, and then a message goes back that says ‘passenger 12345 matched’.”
Wagner said the technology looks for a 90 per cent facial match, and is operating at around a 98 per cent success rate.
If a passenger’s face does not match the image in the CBP’s database, airport staff will check their passport manually.
Wagner said the biggest obstacle was collecting biometrics from departing travellers when US airports don’t have departure controls like in other countries. Passengers who aren’t on the CBP’s database need to submit their passport information online or at the airport before they can use the new system.
When asked about possible security concerns, Wagner said: “A templatised version of a photograph is the only data being transmitted back and forth. Personal data like your name, date of birth or passport number are not stored.
“The systems are secure, but if they were to be compromised, there’s really nothing people could get beyond what they could get by standing at the gate and taking a picture.
“The four times you would normally show your passport, you would show all that personal information. This way, you’re just showing your face to a camera and not disclosing your details to anyone at the airport.”
People are free to opt-out of the system, which Delta said around 2 per cent out of 25,000 weekly passengers were currently doing.
Delta COO Gil West said the airline wanted to be an industry leader in the fast-growing technology.
It has been testing an end-to-end systen with the CBP and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for two years in order to make sure it would actually be a smooth process for customers on launch.
“In our view, we’ve really tried to be innovative and forward thinking and lead the way on transforming the airport experience,” West said.
“With the CBP, we’ve created an end-to-end biometric experience blueprint for the whole industry.
“We’re not new to biometrics, but this is the largest scale we’ve seen, and this won’t be the end of it. We’ll continue to roll this out and we’re really going to push the scale of this across our systems.”
Delta has announced it will introduce biometric cameras at boarding on all 14 international gates at McNamara Terminal in Detroit Metropolitan Airport by mid-December.
It plans to make McNamara an end-to-end biometric terminal at some point next year.
Delta has also been testing biometric options at John F. Kennedy International Airport, Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
Domestic Delta Sky Clubs can be accessed through fingerprint biometrics, which customers register at the airport.
And Delta is not alone. Other biometric schemes include Emirates’ ‘smart tunnel’, Heathrow’s £50 million investment in an end-to-end project and Gatwick’s partnership with Easyjet.
Business Traveller tried the end-to-end experience this week in Atlanta.
Having your face scanned while moving through airport checks isn’t a new experience for most people, but the speed with which the cameras at Atlanta grab your image – even if you don’t stand perfectly still or manoeuvre your face into the right position on a screen – came as a surprise. At bag drop, boarding and security, despite the inevitable queues, the facial match was complete in a couple of seconds.
Checking in at a kiosk still took a few minutes as I needed to scan my passport (which always seems to be frustratingly slow), but this could have been done online, and if I were to fly out from Atlanta in the future my image would be saved.
It felt odd not brandishing a boarding pass and passport at each step of the way, and the process will likely speed up even more once passengers get used to what they need at each point, especially as the technology spreads to more airports.
You do still need to show an electronic or paper boarding pass at the security gates – but not a passport. And you also have to show you have a passport when boarding the plane – but this is just to prove you have one, not to check your identity. A small ticket with your seat number on it is printed for you at boarding, presumably in case you forget.
But airport staff said that with government approval, even these steps might not be necessary in the future, for a truly hassle-free experience.