COVID-19 Impact

Is Your Face the New Airline Boarding Pass?

By Kelsey Reichmann | September 28, 2020
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A retina scan is completed using biometric technology. (SITA)

Biometric technologies, which can use anything from fingerprints to facial scans for identification, are being floated as a solution for airports adjusting to life under COVID-19. While some biometric technologies such as fingerprinting still require passengers to touch possibly contaminated surfaces, many like facial or retina scans can enable a contactless journey through the airport check-in process.  

“We think the use of biometrics allows passengers to enroll, get their identification, which becomes their facial image, use that to check-in, drop your bag, get through security, and board a plane without having to use passports or boarding passes,” Robert Sapitowicz, Director of Marketing at Collins Aerospace, said during a panel discussion webcast held as part of the the Global Connected Aircraft Summit's "Cabin Chats 2020" program.

“We really think the use of biometrics and check in on self-service solutions will free you up and make you document free. It will reduce congestion. So this is the end-to-end contactless passenger journey," Sapitowicz added. 

In a report published by Deloitte, an argument is made that airports must shift their traditional approach to deploying new technologies in order to use biometrics to resolve COVID-19 related health risks and concerns for air travelers. 

“When we think about biometrics, there's been a lot of talk before COVID about how can we accelerate it but also respect the privacy of passengers and comply with state, local, and international laws,” Elizabeth Krimmel, Deloitte U.S. airports lead, told Aviation Today. “That is almost being replaced by how can we accelerate biometrics to remove interaction between passengers and employees or security officers and how can we use biometrics for things like digital identity.” 

Contactless biometrics are already being used in airports. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) uses its Facial Comparison Technology at 18 airports and seven seaports, according to its website. The use of biometric technology by CBP was initiated following the 9/11 Commission Report. 

SITA Smart Path system (SITA )

In August, Beijing Capital International Airport (BCIA) deployed biometric contactless technology known as SITA Smart Path. The SITA Smart Path technology allows passengers to move throughout the airport using just their faces as their boarding pass or passport. At BCIA, SITA claims to have been able to process over 400 passengers for an Airbus A380 flight in less than 20 minutes. 

“That is the second-largest airport in the world and we have a biometric solution deployed there which is in one of their international operations,” Sean Farrel, Vice President of Passengers at Airports at SITA, told Aviation Today.  “So it's that same kind of concept where you enroll with your biometric information as you're essentially checking in for your flight, whether that be at a counter or at a kiosk, as you go through the airport, as you drop your bags off, and as you go through security, and as you board the aircraft, you're being recognized by your face biometric during each step. So your face basically becomes your boarding pass.” 

Lufthansa Group also recently launched the WorldTracer Self Service with SITA which allows passengers to retrieve their checked bags with no contact, according to a press release. The press release states that this new service saves airlines $10 for every mishandled bag. 

According to Farrel, SITA already has biometric technology deployed in 15 airports. 

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is also piloting biometric technology at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA), according to a September press release. The system being used is a Credential Authentication Technology with an attached camera (CAT-C), which is made by IDEMIA, a technology company that sells facial recognition and biometric technology. The CAT-C matches the passenger’s face to their documentation and does not utilize a database in this process. 

A CAT-C machine currently in a trial phase at DCA. (Transportation Security Administration)

“The important distinction here is that it's a one to one match,” a representative for TSA said. “It matches your physical appearance at the camera, or at the station, with the document that you provide for review. So it verifies, one for one.”

The system is still monitored by an employee who stands behind a plastic barrier. The CAT-C does require passengers to remove any masks they might be wearing. 

While less contact within airports will help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the reliance on face masks complicates the use of biometrics. 

In a July study done by the National Institue of Standards and Technology (NIST) using 6.2 million images of 1 million people in 89 algorithms, the most accurate face recognition algorithms – which normally fail to identify about 0.3 percent of people – failed to recognize about 5 percent of masked people. Less tolerant algorithms had a fail rate between 20 and 50 percent. However, the algorithms in this study were created before COVID-19 and were not designed to recognize masked faces. 

Farrel explains that in the initial biometric enrollment, which would be done without a face mask, a high-quality image is captured and put into the system. He said sometimes they can use biometric images from government passports. However, if the system was having trouble making a match, the passenger would have to lower the mask for the scan. 

“The current biometric technologies, the face matching, can actually match somebody wearing a mask,” Farrel said. “They can do that just based on the shape of the face and the eyes and so on. You can actually get a pretty good high-quality match, even with a mask on.”

Algorithms are constantly being updated to accommodate masks. Tony Chapman, Senior Director Product Management and Strategy at Collins Aerospace said that the algorithms used in Collins' technology, which include the ARINC SelfPass system, are still seeing rates at 100 percent accuracy even while wearing a mask. 

Biometric boarding technology used by JetBlue. (SITA)

“The facial matching algorithms are still just as effective as they were before,” Chapman said. “There are still points left on your facial features because it's not just the faces, its the distance between the eyes and the nose, the eyes and the ear lobes, and the size of the ear lobes...we're still seeing 100 percent match rate.” 

Biometrics not only allow a contactless airport experience, but they are also being discussed as a technology to identify possible COVID-19 symptoms. Biometric technologies already have the ability to measure temperature but some in the industry are questioning monitoring other illness markers to prevent disease spread and make passengers more comfortable. 

“I think people are going to be nervous for a while,” Sapitowicz said. “We are looking at typical biomarkers for respiratory illnesses. So people are saying, ‘I want to make sure there’s no one with COVID traveling with me,’ but I think, equally, you don’t want someone with the flu traveling next to you either. I think there’s going to be a different concern by passengers going into the future and a willingness to go through screening.” 

Some companies are already testing and deploying these technologies, such as SITA using temperature detection technology.  

“We're doing this in a couple of different ways,” Farrel said. “We are deploying systems at airports, we had a trial recently in Naples, which was using a standalone system where basically you set up a camera and it can scan an area of the airport. It can detect the people moving around in that area that have a high body temperature and test it against a reference point. And then the second thing that we're looking at is actually including temperature sensing as well into our self-service systems.”

Collins is planning on incorporating temperature readings in their technology as soon next month, according to Chapman. They are also researching other biomarkers their technology could use to detect illness. 

“We are developing another technology in the research labs that measure heart rate, respiration rate, and saturated O2 content in the same practice or in the same biometric process without us having to do anything,” Chapman said. 

Collins is also working on technologies that could monitor mask usage or crowd congestion within an airport, Chapman said. However, the company admits that the digital profiles that are created to use this biometric data could cause privacy and security concerns. As with other data security use cases, the passenger will have to pay attention to terms of data collection that the systems will provide.  

“In the majority of cases, an airport is not going to capture, store, or maintain any of that data,” Krimmel said. “If you think about some of the private entities who are actually using biometrics in the current airport environment, things like CLEAR, you as a consumer are authorizing them to store and maintain that data and doing so with the hopeful confidence that that data is going to be protected.”

The companies that are making biometric technologies are also using appropriate cybersecurity measures to ensure passengers’ data isn’t hacked. In most circumstances, images within these systems are not stored, Farrell said. 

“Being an exception that the image itself is stored, the image that is captured is templatized,” Farrell said. “So just a long string of ones and zeros that mean absolutely nothing for anybody. You can't recreate the image from that template string.”

Many in the industry believe the future of biometrics in airports will allow travelers to have a fully integrated digital identification or even an immunity passport. 

“I think that with COVID we're moving towards an acceptance of digital credentials, whether it be on your smartphone or another type of mobile device,” Krimmel said. “When there is a vaccine for COVID, how are we going to take that into consideration for passenger screening for certain flights and using kind of a self-sovereign immunity passport that can be your managed by you on your phone, and you're able to maintain and protect that data that, I think, will potentially give an opportunity for us to use things like health status when determining if someone's safe to fly.”

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