Passengers will be asked to insert their IDs into a device with facial recognition capability.

By Meena Thiruvengadam
September 03, 2020
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Credit: Michael A. McCoy/Getty Images

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has begun testing a self-service facial recognition system to verify traveler IDs as travel begins to return amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Launched at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, passengers will insert their IDs, driver’s licenses, or passports into scanners instead of handing them to TSA officers, the agency announced this week. The devices verify passengers' flight information and identities by their photo and comparing that image with their ID.

The TSA said it won’t save photographs taken as part of the program, pledging only to use the images for identity verification.

Facial recognition technology is increasingly being adopted at airports across the U.S. as the struggling airline industry aims to provide more touchless travel experiences against the backdrop of the ongoing pandemic.

Although the self-serve method will reduce contact between passengers and TSA agents, the technology also won’t render them obsolete just yet. Officers still examine facial recognition results and flight information. For now, they’ll work behind acrylic shields to create an additional physical barrier between themselves and passengers.

The TSA said it intends to rapidly deploy facial recognition technology should its pilot at Washington National go well.

Flint Bishop Airport in Michigan is the first U.S. airport to adopt smart helmets with facial biometric technology to scan passenger body temperatures and trigger further screenings.  The helmets are already are in use at Rome’s Fiumicino International Airport.

Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport plans to roll out facial recognition for domestic flight check-in later this year, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

Hawaii is also planning to bring facial recognition to all of its major airports by the end of the year, according to the trade publication Travel Weekly.

In partnership with the TSA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Delta in 2018 deployed facial recognition systems for international travelers in Atlanta. Delta's approach in Atlanta allows passengers to use facial recognition instead of their ideas at self-service kiosks, TSA checkpoints, and to board flights.

Meena Thiruvengadam is a Travel + Leisure contributor who has visited 50 countries on six continents and 47 U.S. states. She loves historic plaques, wandering new streets, and walking on beaches. Find her on Twitter at @meena_thiru and on Instagram at @meenathiru.