Should We Worry About The Rise Of Biometric Boarding?


The airport experience has become increasingly hectic and stressful over the past years. Lengthy security queues, liquid screening and body scans all add to the frustration. Travelers are also increasingly seeing biometric or facial data capture at both immigration and boarding. This article takes a look at the current state of biometric boarding, and the concerns it raises.

British Airways biometric boarding gates
British Airways biometric boarding gates. Photo: British Airways

What is biometric boarding?

‘Biometric boarding’ is where facial recognition is used to confirm passenger identity at the boarding gate (or indeed elsewhere in the airport). It replaces the traditional manual check of the passport and its photo.

Biometric data could also include other areas such as fingerprints, iris scans or voice recognition. But it is facial recognition which is most common in airports (use of other methods is common elsewhere, for example in banking).

Facial recognition works by comparing key facial features (such as distances between the eyes or across the face) with those of an already captured and stored image. This could either be one captured earlier in the check-in process or often the passport image stored in government databases.

Facial recognition
Facial recognition compares key data between facial images. Photo: teguhjatipras via Wikimedia

Where is biometric boarding being used?

In the US, biometric data capture and boarding is currently being installed at 20 of the main airports, as part of a program from US Customers and Border protection that began in 2016. This is for international flights at the moment – there is a desire to use too for domestic US flights but this creates problems as many travelers do not travel with passports (and hence stored photograph data).

Some airlines and airports are further ahead than others. Delta, for example, has implemented biometric recognition across a whole terminal at Atlanta airport. Faces are scanned on check-in, bag drop, security screening, and boarding. It is now expanding this at Los Angeles airport.

Delta facial recognition
Delta facial recognition boarding gate. Photo: Delta

In Europe, British Airways has been capturing biometric data for domestic flights for a number of years and is trialing with international flights. Lufthansa and Iberia are working with it too. In the Middle East, Emirates has started using it for US flights. And this list is growing fast.

And biometric recognition is not just limited to aircraft boarding. Rental car company Hertz has announced the rollout of facial recognition and fingerprint scanning at 40 US airports, to speed up car hire.

Emirates facial recognition
Emirates has run pilots for biometric boarding for US-bound flights. Photo: Emirates

Concerns about data privacy

Since its inception, biometric data capture has raised concerns with many. The American Civil Liberties Union has long been against this, warning that stored photographs can be used for surveillance or law enforcement. They can of course also be stolen or hacked.

In their defense, airlines and customs claim that photographs and data are only stored temporarily. But that doesn’t make the situation less worrying.

BA biometric gates
Boarding will capture images, but many airlines claim they will only hold data for a short time. Photo: British Airways

Part of the problem is about trust. Whist airlines claim data will be kept safe, and only for a limited time in most cases, can they be trusted to do so? You only have look back to 2018, and the case where British Airways lost passenger’s credit card details. For this, they received a proposed fine of £183 million. But credit card details can be replaced; not so with biometric data!


There are advantages

Despite concerns from the public and civil groups, governments and airlines see strong advantages in pushing forward biometric recognition. It is designed to be safer and more accurate than manual checks. Making sure the right person is boarding the flight, and leaving the country, is an important security concern in any nation.

Airlines are also reporting improvements in the boarding process. Delta claims that the technology enables it to board an international flight nine minutes faster. British Airways reports that a 400 passenger flight can be boarded in half the time.

Lufthansa A380
Lufthansa claimed to be able to board an A380 in 20 minutes using biometric boarding. Photo: Lufthansa

Some airlines claim too that passenger concern may be overrated. Delta reports that only two percent of travelers opt-out (this is a possibility) of facial scans and request a manual check instead.

Here to stay?

Trials and rollouts of biometric technology are increasingly rapidly. More and more passengers will find this included in the boarding process.

Without hard evidence of problems or ‘loss’ of stored facial data, it seems unlikely to slow down. A Business Traveller article recently highlighted the fact that there has been little public consultation on the growing use of such technologies. There are also questions in Europe about the extent to which data capture will be affected by GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation).

Perhaps more public consultation and better regulatory control will help. But the fact is that biometric and facial data is already being digitized and stored. Its use to secure and streamline boarding is an extension of this. Of course, opening data to more parties increases the risk of misuse or loss, but (and not just in airports) it seems biometric is pushing forward.