Travel Advisors Say They’re Unafraid of Biometrics

by Richard D'Ambrosio
Travel Advisors Say They’re Unafraid of Biometrics

Delta Air Lines has been experimenting with biometrics for more than three years, testing it at a number of airports around the U.S. Photo: Delta. 


It seems like biometric recognition is being used or tested everywhere in travel today. Everyone from U.S. Homeland Security, to airlines, to cruise lines, is capturing a traveler’s physical features and storing this data on computers to speed up processing and enhance customer satisfaction.

Delta Air Lines has been experimenting with biometrics for more than three years, testing it for self-service bag drop at its Minneapolis-St. Paul hub, passenger boarding at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, and optional biometric check-in for its Delta Sky Club airport lounges. The carrier also works extensively at its hubs with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to use biometrics for security check points.

Just recently, the Star Alliance (which includes Air Canada, Lufthansa, Scandinavian Airlines, Singapore Airlines, and United Airlines) announced it is working with the Japanese technology firm, NEC Corp, to launch biometric technology for its 26 network carriers next year.

Meanwhile, companies like Royal Caribbean Cruises are investing millions in developing passenger biometrics applications. And the Wall Street Journal recently reported that Vrbo, part of Expedia Group, is exploring how to use biometric monitoring to track travel buyers’ preferences when they are surfing the Vrbo website.

Despite the pervasive use of facial recognition, travel advisors don’t seem concerned with privacy issues. They appreciate the benefits themselves while traveling, and say they are hearing very little from their clients about the technology.

“I just sailed on Celebrity and my check-in was very smooth due to the picture they had of me. Every time I used my ‘SeaPass,’ my picture popped up on the screen, whether I was ordering a drink or disembarking at a port,” said Erinn Frisch Willems, owner at Monarch Travel, in Highlands Ranch, Colorado.

Christi McGown, owner of Happy Place Travel, in Bowling Green, Kentucky, noted how she took advantage of biometrics on her most recent cruise through Port Canaveral, Florida. “Smoothly sailed through customs due to the facial recognition technology. I’m good with it.”

In a press announcement about their agreement with NEC, the Star Alliance said their services will offer “a seamless and hands-free passenger experience,” through check-in kiosks, bag drop, airport lounges, and boarding gates. “Moreover, the platform will help airports and the Star Alliance member airlines to increase operational efficiency,” the press statement said.

For most of the commercial offerings, travelers choose to “opt-in” and authorize the use of their biometric data. At a recent public discussion about biometrics in Seattle, Jason Hausner, Delta director for passenger facilitation, said less than 2% of their passengers opt out.

“My hospital uses palm scans, and my bank uses fingerprints, as does my smart phone,” said Melani Roewe, owner of Travel Overtures, in Edmond, Oklahoma. “And one office building I know of uses retina scans. I’m ok with it. The government has our passport and driver’s license photos. Cruise ships have our photo. So why would airlines not store them, too?”

Kelly West Haverlandt, a travel agent with World Unleashed, is also a teacher at a high school in Whitefish, Montana. “We use thumbprint scans for students to enter the building,” she said. “Biometric IDs are relatively quick to set up and fast to implement.”

“We should get used to it. This is the future,” said Frisch Willems. 

Commercial offerings require travelers opt in
Digital privacy advocates are concerned about how all of these photos are used, whether certain minorities will be inordinately misidentified, and are raising questions about privacy and identity theft. For example, could information gathered by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) be used by other federal agencies to track and learn other sensitive traveler information.

CBP wants to use facial recognition software to screen 97% of outbound U.S. international flights by 2021. The technology compares photos of passengers taken at airports with photos the government already has from various other sources. That photo is compared with their government ID photo at boarding to verify travelers are who they say they are, and filter the passenger against other government watch lists.

According to the American Association of Airport Executives, photos of U.S. citizens taken during the process are discarded within 24 hours.

Adam Klein, chairman of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board of the U.S. Federal Government, commented about privacy issues during a recent biometrics test at Las Vegas McCarran International Airport, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

“We’re aware of the questions that the members of the public, nongovernmental organizations, members of Congress, and others have raised about the technology,” Klein told the press attending an event there.

“We’re looking at things like what is the security motivation for using this, what types of data are being collected, how is it being analyzed and how is it being stored, and are there any other uses of the data on the back end.”

Another board member, Travis LeBlanc, also asked questions about privacy concerns at the event. “What data are we going to keep and how long are we going to keep it? With whom you can share? What are we going to do about children? I think a lot of these policy calls generate the kind of questions and concerns that passengers, consumers, and citizens have about privacy today.”

There are no laws regulating the use of facial recognition technology in the U.S., though a bipartisan group of congressional lawmakers have held hearings this year and are considering sponsoring a bill this fall.   

Jeff Kerber, a former sales engineer for a biometric company, and current owner at Warp One Travel, in McKinney, Texas, believes that “properly designed and implemented, biometric solutions do not store actual fingerprint, retinal, facial scans, etc. They store an algorithmically hashed version that can’t be reverse engineered using existing technology.”

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