Biometric facial recognition could soon replace the traditional way of processing passengers at dozens of airports around the U.S., with the potential of drastically cutting red tape at checkpoints.
Speaking at the IATA Aviation Day conference in New York John Wagner, deputy executive assistant commissioner for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, predicted that facial recognition technology, which has been tested in only a few airport checkpoints, will advance to the point where it “really has the potential to transform the whole airport experience.”
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) highlighted two security checkpoint technologies that are currently being piloted at Los Angeles International Airport’s (LAX) Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT).
These systems are designed to enhance security while easing the screening process for travelers.
Miami International Airport celebrated its newly renovated Concourse and Federal inspection facility for international travelers.
One of its main features also is the passport screening via facial recognition technology to verify travelers’ identities by matching them to the documents they present.
Wagner pointed out that the recent tests of Boston Logan Airport, in partnership with JetBlue, as well as the tests at Los Angeles and Miami, have led the agency to conclude that biometric facial recognition technology is not only highly accurate and secure, it’s also winning acceptance from the public.
The technology works like this: passengers entering the airport will have their image captured at kiosks, which can then be matched with the rest of the traveler’s details in their passenger name records. Once that picture is taken, it can be used to identify a passenger at every airport location where they need to show an ID.
This has the potential not only to speed up queues for international arrivals but also to reduce lines at the TSA ID check station and even at the boarding gate.
According to industry intelligence agency CAPA Centre for Aviation, the plan is in keeping with President Donald Trump’s wider aims to tighten border security measures. Though the technology existed before he took office Trump has expedited implementation, despite the technology’s so-called “teething problems.”
The technology is also catching on elsewhere; in one ongoing test in Aruba, for example, facial IDs are already in place for KLM passengers flying to Amsterdam; at LAX Airport, Lufthansa recently tested the technology to give passengers the option of getting on the flight without showing a boarding pass, if they agreed to submit their biometric scans.
But there’s a huge caveat. Where the technology currently stands, face recognition doesn’t work the same for everyone.
The face recognition software is not so good at identifying ethnic minorities. Also, commonplace accessories or personal effects like hats, scarves, facial hair, long hair, heavy make-up or even low-resolution images and poor lighting mean the current technology may perform inaccurately.
Given those limitations, it’s not hard to imagine a whole host of ways that biometric security could make travel more seamless for one set of travelers and an even larger headache for others.
Whether it’s being asked to remove cultural dress such as head or face coverings, someone who’s undergone corrective or plastic surgery, or having an ID photo that’s not in CBP’s database, there are number of scenarios in which ethnic minority, non-American, or heavily ornamented travelers could find biometric boarding the opposite of seamless.
The CBP reports that the technology is 97.5% accurate, and has aspirations to roll it out at all US airports within four years.