Biometrics in air transport: transforming the passenger experience

October 27, 2017 - 

This is a guest post by Nora Blomefield, Head of Marketing for Travel Segment & Border Management Offers, Government Business Unit at Gemalto.

The arrival of biometrics is radically transforming the passenger experience in airports. This new technology, combined with new self-service solutions, now offers the means to address today’s security challenges, the search for enhanced quality of service, while catering for the sustained growth in passenger numbers.

The challenges facing air passenger travel today

Over the last two decades, profound political and economic upheavals have led to a change in air travel practices. The long-planned Schengen agreements (1995), followed by the enlargement of the EU (May 2004), intended to promote fluidity within the Union, now have to take into account increasingly stringent security demands. The 9/11 attacks which took place in New York in 2001 marked the beginning of a long series of malicious acts that have led to a need for stricter passenger controls. But the directives put forward by a number of countries in the field of travel data (Advance Passenger Information – API, and Passenger Name Records – PNR) will only be effective if it is possible to identify suspicious persons in airports.

At another level, air transport is a key facilitating factor for the economy. Business and tourist travel are a source of wealth and job creation. The air travel sector (airports, airlines, national and international authorities, the security industry) find themselves confronted with multiple requirements: to provide fluidity for “reliable” passengers, limit waiting times and passenger delays, reinforce controls to counter potential threats, and contain costs.

Why biometrics is so closely related to identity

The statistics speak for themselves: there will be nearly 4 billion air passengers in 2017 and this number is set to double over the next twenty years.

In a similar way to bankers required by the regulatory framework to know their customers better (KYC – Know Your Customer), airport service providers are now discovering the tremendous potential of biometrics, which goes far beyond strictly security-related applications. Let’s leave aside the very legitimate concerns around identity fraud and terrorism for a moment, and focus on the traveller experience, which takes central stage in the new world of IOT today.

There is a desire on the part of IATA, the International Air Transport Association, to restore air travel’s erstwhile prestige – the comfort, convenience, and more – and they are reclaiming the right to a positive experience on behalf of the passenger. With their innovative concept of “unique identity”, we would be able to authenticate ourselves, not for a particular trip, but, once and for all, for all our journeys. Biometrics would in this case be the guarantor of this identity thanks to a token that could ultimately be used in all airports.

The Australians for instance have recently even surpassed the IATA proposal by dematerializing passports to store them on the cloud so as to facilitate travel with their neighbours in New Zealand.

The shape of travel to come: a fully end-to-end self-service experience thanks to biometrics

Faced with increasingly dense air traffic, over the past 15 years, airports and airlines have very widely opted for the deployment of automatic systems with the aim of freeing up bottlenecks in passenger flows – which can be a very problematic issue at peak times – by simplifying the check-in process.

These systems, in particular automatic check-in kiosks or automated bag drop-off points have revolutionized the check-in process, allowing travellers to save time by checking in themselves, thus reducing waiting times by 30% compared to traditional check-in desks. Studies show that the more passengers have access to the use of technology, the higher the rate of satisfaction is, thus allowing the traveller experience at the airport to be improved.

Biometric identification consists in presenting oneself, as in the real world, physically or else on the basis of a document confirming one’s civil status. The recipient may store this information by taking a photograph or store it in a database, if permitted by law. Compared to authentication, which requires a person to prove that they are who they claim to be (such as with a PIN for withdrawing cash), biometrics is an incontrovertible means of confirming the resemblance between the applicant and a reference which may be stored locally or remotely.

The local “MOC” storage (for Match On Card) consists of holding one’s own biometric identification on a medium such as a card or badge, presented and read in the same way as the contactless technology (NFC) used for credit card payments. Thanks to this type of identification, everyone effectively carries their own means of authorization. Response times are kept to a minimum, since the applicant is confronted with his own biometrics. This is the procedure implemented by the biometric border control gates, the famous PARAFE eGates, where the traveller is authenticated in relation to his/her passport. Should the precious open-sesame – badge, passport, card – be lost or stolen, the applicant can no longer authenticate him or herself.

The biometric experience: what expectations?

All these initiatives reflect the current trend towards greater automation of control procedures. The modern-day traveller in fact spends a lot of time surfing the web, checking stock exchange listings, consulting messages, updating on the weather, etc. So booking a flight, checking in, boarding, smiling at the biometric app on the smartphone, and so on, look like a logical extension of lifestyle habits initiated by the new technologies.

With 1,000 million electronic passports now in service worldwide, which means 1 billion passport photos accessible in standardized format by face recognition systems, the eGates mentioned above represents the most promising biometric solution, and it is already in place in an increasing number of airports. Recent studies have confirmed time savings of the order of 80% thanks to automated check-in and security procedures.

Ultimately, these innovations will lead to increased efficiency, limit passenger waiting times and allow airport and airline staff to focus on other tasks such as the smooth functioning of the service and of security, and providing assistance to novice passengers. In addition to this, travellers being cleared fast from security check will be more likely to spend more time and money in the duty free shopping area, which represents a significant part of any airport’s revenue.

DISCLAIMER: BiometricUpdate.com blogs are submitted content. The views expressed in this blog are that of the author, and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BiometricUpdate.com.

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About Nora Blomefield

Nora Blomefield, Head of Marketing for Border Management, Gemalto.