Biometrics: Real value or gimmicky crap?

It started in late 2017 with JetBlue and Delta Air Lines. In 2018 British Airways and Lufthansa joined the fun. After years of development and integration testing behind the scenes biometric boarding gates are all the rage these days, it would seem.

The most recent demonstration to make the news came from Los Angeles, where Lufthansa boarded 350 passengers on to an A380 in just 20 minutes. A passenger’s photo is taken as they approach the gate. Rather than showing a boarding pass and passport to the agent the photo is transmitted to an immigration authority (in this case US Customs & Border Protection) where it is validated and matched to a passenger name. That information is transferred back to the airline and the passenger is marked as boarded on the flight. No interaction is required from the agents at the gate.

Real value for immigration processing

The timing efficiency is echoed by the other carriers trialing the systems. Passengers love that it speeds the process, but there are other, real benefits to this version of biometrics. By validating the passport details the airlines reduce risk of boarding the wrong passenger or allowing someone on to a flight who does not have the correct credentials to enter at their arrival country. Avoiding that fine is real money. Such systems can also ease immigration processing for many travelers. While the US does not currently have a formal exit immigration process for departing travelers these biometric systems can enable better tracking of passengers and a smooth transition to such an operation if desired.

The test run in Orlando International Airport with British Airways is set to expand significantly. All of the international departures gates – used by more than 20 different airlines – will soon have facial recognition hardware installed. Later in 2018 the airport expects that every international departure will be processed through the system.

Similar systems can work for arriving passengers as well. Panasonic Avionics and Tascent announced a deal last Fall to partner on such efforts, integrating the inflight entertainment system into the process.

On the airplane, on approach, I’ve got a bit of time. I’m going to do a biometric scan and I’m going to clear Global Entry on the plane. Then, without even stopping because there is a partnered machine in the terminal, you just walk straight through without even pausing. And that will continue to evolve. – Jon Norris, Panasonic Avionics‘ senior director of Corporate Sales & Marketing

Changi’s new Terminal 4 and Dubai’s Terminal 3 are ahead of the curve, with similar systems in the deployment or production phases at their airports. The Dubai example is particularly impressive for the way it engages passengers. Rather than a generic walk-through “gate” area the airport built a digital aquarium. The projections of fish surrounding the passengers create an entertaining experience. It also naturally draws passengers faces up and to several different angles as they pass through the immigration facility. That helps ensure the facial recognition systems get the clean shot they need to identify travelers.

A gimmick at the lounge?

Want to speed access to Delta’s SkyClub lounges? A fingerprint scan can now get you inside. The carrier is pushing its partnership with (and partial ownership of) Clear to demonstrate how biometrics can save time for passengers. The question is just how much time it really saves.

Scanning a boarding pass also can provide access (Turkish Airlines chose this approach years ago in its CIP Lounge in Istanbul-Ataturk Airport) and is also quick. Indeed, Delta was once on the leading edge of such concepts, with the option for members of its SkyMiles program so scan their frequent flyer barcode rather than a boarding pass at the gate. The computers can quickly reconcile traveler details with such systems. The difference appears less about the speed of processing but the passenger verification.

Or is it a test bed?

Lufthansa demonstrated a contactless version of such systems at it Digital Aviation Days event in January 2017, similarly focused on lounge access. The carrier was quick to note that it was using lounges as a trial for something larger. The facilities are a good place to prove technologies rather than the end game. They also help acclimate more frequent travelers to the changing technology and drive adoption.

Also, unlike Delta’s push with Clear, it does not appear that Lufthansa has such blatant commercial ambitions with the developments. Delta appears to be pushing for Clear enrollment far more than it is focused on smoothing lounge entry.

Seth Miller has over a decade of experience covering the airline industry. With a strong focus on passenger experience, Seth also has deep knowledge of inflight connectivity and loyalty programs. He is widely respected as an unbiased commentator on the aviation industry. He is frequently consulted on innovations in passenger experience by airlines and technology providers. You can connect with Seth on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .