Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

This technology could make passports obsolete.

May 31, 2017

JetBlue will be the first airline to connect with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) systems for biometric facial recognition at the gate.

Passengers who opt in to the biometric ID process won’t have to present a paper or electronic boarding pass. Instead, they can step up to the camera and take a photo.

The camera will send their image to CBP where it will be matched to passport, visa or immigration photos in the CBP database. At the same time, the system will verify flight details. A screen above the camera will let travelers know when they are cleared to board their flight.

“Self-boarding eliminates boarding pass scanning and manual passport checks,” said Joanna Geraghty, JetBlue's executive vice president customer experience. “Just look into the camera and you’re on your way.”

 Courtesy of JetBlue

Selfie boarding, as you might call it, is part of larger trend by JetBlue (and other airlines) to adopt new technologies for self-service. This includes “queue-less” lobbies with interactive check-in kiosks, self-bag tagging and self-bag drop services which help cut the time passengers spend standing in line.

The new biometric self-boarding process will be introduced on flights from Boston’s Logan International Airport to Aruba’s Queen Beatrix International Airport in June, and will be available to any passengers who want to opt in, without having to pre-register. With staff members free to roam beyond the desk, JetBlue plans to equip them with iPad minis which they can use for more personalized customer service.

While biometric check-in and boarding trials have been conducted at other airports around the world, this is the first time biometric facial recognition is cleared through CBP systems. It is part of a growing industry trend to use biometrics for a smoother travel process. Delta recently introduced biometric bag-drop which also uses facial recognition software.

“This biometric self-boarding program for JetBlue and the CBP is designed to be easy to use. What we want to deliver is a secure and seamless passenger experience,” said Jim Peters, chief technology officer at SITA, which worked on the program with JetBlue and CBP. “This is the first integration of biometric authorization by the CBP with an airline and may prove to be a solution that will be quick and easy to roll out across U.S. airports.”

There are other important benefits to the launch of biometric trials in the U.S.: Technology specialists have recommended biometrics as an important enhancement to national security and a more reliable form of personal identification.

Joe Leader, CEO of the Airline Passenger Experience Association, has also suggested that biometric identification could help solve the controversial electronics ban. A “pre-clearance” program could be designed for business travelers who need their laptops or tablets with them at all times. Once registered, travelers could be confirmed as cleared to carry electronics using facial recognition technology.

Airline associations, like the International Air Transport Association, agree that biometric technology will have useful applications in the future of air travel as part of “single token” identification. Combined with secure encryption of personal details, biometrics could one day make passports obsolete.

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