Image: Stephanie Taylor

Biometrics continues to be a major focus in air transport, a fact evidenced by the FTE Biometrics Symposium at the FTE EMEA event in Istanbul, Turkey, which highlighted the growing number of industry stakeholders invested in the development and uptake of single-token travel solutions.

In his presentation on the significance of biometrics to the travel experience of the future, APEX/IFSA CEO Joe Leader explained that in late 2018, the APEX/IFSA Board of Governors voted unanimously to prioritize biometrics in 2019 with a view to making the air travel journey more efficient.

According to Leader, multiple board members shared a problem highlighted by Calin Rovinescu, Air Canada’s CEO: Despite the extra steps they have taken so they can be biometrically identified, when entering North America they still find themselves speaking to a security officer to answer the same questions they have already answered electronically.

“He’s the CEO of an airline, and if that’s the case in this instance, how many passengers are inconvenienced with double the work instead of half the work, which is what biometrics should enable,” Leader questioned.

“How many passengers are inconvenienced with double the work instead of half the work, which is what biometrics should enable.” – Joe Leader, APEX

Another example of how the simple introduction of technology doesn’t always mean a smoother, more efficient process came from Thomas Hoff Andersson, COO of Bangalore International Airport. He explained during his presentation that while in Europe there is likely one “airport helper” looking after six check-in kiosks, at Bangalore Airport they need six members of staff per one bag-drop kiosk. “Out of the additional seven million passengers we had last year, 35% were first time travelers […] so we have an educational task,” he said.

Leader identified that one of the primary issues with today’s biometric technology is that while it has many uses – self check-in, bag tagging, security and boarding, to name a few – there is a lack of cross-functional integration. This prevents the creation of a single-token biometric ID, a solution APEX believes will transform the passenger experience for the better.

Referred to by IATA as the One ID concept, a single-token biometric ID approach allows for the facial authentication of passengers as they move across the airport, getting rid of the need for physical identity documents. It promises to speed up the airport journey and thereby increase capacity, something Bangalore Airport hopes to achieve in the next nine to 12 months as a result of its partnership with Vision-Box. Other companies offering single-token travel solutions include SITA and Collins Aerospace.

As well as making air travel more efficient, biometric technology should make air travel more secure. In 2018, the US Department of Transportation said human biometric checks – when a government-approved form of identification is authenticated by an airport employee – has a 40% failure rate when it comes to individuals fraudulently using “near match” forms of identification belonging either to someone else or fraudulently obtained.

Nonetheless, Leader made clear in his presentation that to be secure , the biometric data for each passenger must be individually encrypted.

Ilya Gutlin, CCO of three-year-old company Elenium Automation, said in his presentation that the key to getting airport and airline buy-in when it comes to single-token travel is to create a solution which doesn’t require them to change their current infrastructure. Citing his company’s work with Cathay Pacific and Hong Kong Airlines, Gutlin explained, “We intercept the printing screen, we make the Departure Control System believe that a command is going to the printer. It captures the passenger’s data and then we send it to the biometric engine.”

Although Gutlin said the work did highlight issues with group bookings, wherein a stream of passengers is scanning passports and taking pictures, and the system has to match both together, but with some smart algorithms Elenium achieved 90% accuracy in group situations.

Elenium’s Voyager solution also provides biometric recognition for bags, enabling tagless bags and removing another step in the passenger’s airport journey. Elenium will test this concept with Etihad Airways by the end of 2019. In the future, Leader predicts the use of single-token biometric ID technology will expand to encompass in-flight entertainment, retail and wellness.