Your Face Might Soon Be Your Passport Thanks to Biometric Technology

Delta Airlines Biometric ID
Photo: Courtesy of Delta Airlines

Passports full of colorful border stamps may soon be replaced by your iris.

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), 45% of passengers are ready to ditch their paper passports and use biometric identification instead.

Airlines and airports are setting up the groundwork to make that happen. The IATA One ID project is dedicated to letting passengers go from the curb to the gate without ever having to reach in their pocket or purse to pull out a passport or paper boarding pass.

One ID would be based on a digital identity for passengers supported by a ‘single biometric token.’ That token could be generated by a facial scan or other measure.

There are all sorts of biometric identification systems that will find their way into our everyday lives in the very near future. They range from fingerprints to palm scans, iris or facial scans, to systems that can identify you based on your heartbeat, your voice, your stride or even how you smell. But airlines and airports favor facial scans and we’re seeing more machines installed every month at airports around the world.

Airline technology company SITA says that 71% of airlines and 77% of airports are planning major programs of research and development of biometric IDs by 2021, but the move away from passports will be gradual. According to their recent report, 59% of airports plan to introduce self-boarding gates that work with a combination of biometric ID and travel documents. Another 52% have plans to install self-boarding gates that will only use biometric ID; and 47% of airports plan to switch to a single biometric token ID at all airport checkpoints by 2021.

Delta Air Lines and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport got ahead of the trend. They launched a program with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in 2018 which made Maynard H. Jackson International Terminal (Terminal F) in Atlanta Airport the first fully-biometric airport terminal in the U.S. Since then, the airline has expanded biometric boarding to Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, New York, Detroit, and Los Angeles.

The Delta and Atlanta biometric ID works from check-in through boarding with facial scanning machines at the self-service kiosks, baggage drop-off counters, TSA checkpoints, and all Terminal F boarding gates. There are also biometric ID stations at CBP for those arriving to the U.S.

Delta’s biometric program is voluntary. Customers who want to do things the “old fashioned way” still can. But for those keen to travel by selfie, the new biometric ID service also works for passengers who fly Delta Air Lines partners Aeromexico, Air France-KLM, and Virgin Atlantic when flying through Terminal F.

Technology company VisionBox is going one step further, literally. The company has developed a biometric walkway that can scan to confirm passenger identity as they walk along, without having to stop at the camera. It’s a good view of where we are headed.

The biggest challenge for airlines and airports is getting One ID to work around the world. Governments have to agree to common standards for sharing biometric data. SITA believes that it will start with bilateral agreements between allies, like the U.S. and UK, and that those agreements will include other trusted allies over time.

The CBP agency wants to install more biometric ID stations for passengers entering the country and is trialing international partnerships with British Airways, Air New Zealand, Jet Blue, Lufthansa, and the Orlando, Los Angeles and Mineta San Jose airports.

But don’t toss out your passport yet! Even if you do want to use biometric ID, you’ll need your passport for international flights or your license for domestic flights. Those are still the official government documents necessary to confirm your biometric identity. Plus, you’ll need them if the machines fail.

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