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Airport biometrics at a potential turning point

The challenge has always been who’s going to pay for it.


There has been a steady stream of announcements regarding deployments of biometric technology in airports around the world over the past several years, but deployments in the U.S. have mostly been pilot projects. Since biometric exit was first mandated in the U.S. by Congress in 1996, and again in 2002, concerns about a variety of issues, including cost, privacy, and accuracy have largely prevented it from being utilized in the country.

The continued growth in passenger numbers which the travel industry expects is making it increasingly necessary for the aviation industry, along with U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Customs and Border Protection (CPB), to find ways to move passengers through security checkpoints and other areas during the travel process in an efficiently and securely.

The Secure Journeys Working Group brings together stakeholders including those government agencies, the aviation industry, security experts, and technology providers to increase efficiency and put forward suggestions and best practices for aviation security. The group looks at aviation issues holistically to collaborate on utilizing innovative technology to close gaps with an additional layer of security, founding member David Menzel explained to Biometric Update in an interview.

“That’s the angle we take into this with Secure Journeys working group,” Menzel says. “We ask how we can take some of these technologies that we’re already using, or we’re already exploring within the airport space, and make them another layer of security.”

In addition to his role with Secure Journeys, Menzel is also sales director of government markets for SITA, which is participating in several trials of biometric technology in airport applications. Airports have limited options for adapting to the new travel environment, Menzel points out, as their infrastructure can only be significantly improved by building new terminals, and funding is not about to be dramatically increased.

“You can’t resource your way out of this problem, you’ve got to look at technology.”

Deploying the appropriate technology is not a simple matter of identifying and procuring it, however. The processes required for deployment, including certification by TSA, can significantly slow deployment.

“At numerous conferences or events where TSA or CBP is addressing the industry, I’ve heard airport directors talk about the concerns and the frustrations about seeing new technologies get deployed in a timely basis because of the process that, for instance, TSA needs to go through to certify these technologies,” Menzel says. “That can be somewhere in the range of 18 to 24 months from the time they develop the requirements and capabilities all the way through testing at TSA TISA center before the product can hit the market.”

Menzel thinks the industry has reached a turning point, however. The pilot run by SITA and British Airways at Orlando International Airport is the first time an airport has proactively dedicated funds to deploy biometric technology, which sets a precedent, and also creates the conditions for consumers to generate more data and make different choices.

“The challenge has always been who’s going to pay for it,” Menzel explains. “Orlando stepped up.”

Other deployments in the U.S. are all trials being run by government agencies. CBP recently announced two more trials, in San Francisco and Seattle, in addition to the eight they already have operational, Menzel points out. The trials will generate the data to guide policy-making, but Menzel points out that plenty of data about the efficiency and convenience of the technology has been gathered from existing pilots, and the long-established applications of biometric processing in countries around the world.

“At some point they have to plant a flag, and say ‘we’ve done it, here are the results, here’s what’s happening.’”

Menzel reports the number of people choosing not to participate in trials of biometric technology so far have been close to zero. As statistics for public acceptance, processing times, and security assurance are collected, the TSA, CBP, and industry stakeholders will have to arrive on the same page and work together to maximize the gains from the technology and motivate adoption.

“The only way this really benefits the industry and works for everybody, airlines and airports, is for it to be seamless, end to end, curb to gate,” he argues. “Until we get to that point, some airports will take the position that they’re going to invest, some airlines will invest, but I do believe we’re starting to see momentum now with regards to a potential rollout.”

A rollout across every airport in the U.S. could take years, but is hardly the endgame. Eventually, Menzel says, government to government biometric sharing can enable travel between different regions, such as the U.S. and Europe, without a passport.

“Biometrics have been discussed for a very long time, it’s used in other industries, and I think we’re now finally seeing the aviation industry move to using biometrics throughout the process, for operational efficiency, for customer satisfaction, and for security effectiveness” he says. “It really is critical to touch all three of those areas.”

If that is achieved, then the evidence of benefit will be clear. Agreement and cooperation between agencies and industry should then be within reach, and investment will follow.

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