U.S. Customs Pushes Biometric Facial Recognition Technology as Cure for Airport Bottlenecks

by Barbara Peterson
U.S. Customs Pushes Biometric Facial Recognition Technology as Cure for Airport Bottlenecks

Photo: Arina B. Habitch/Shutterstock.com


Biometric facial recognition could soon replace the traditional way of processing passengers at dozens of airports around the U.S., with the potential of drastically cutting red tape at checkpoints, according to John Wagner, deputy executive assistant commissioner for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Speaking at the IATA Aviation Day conference in New York last week, Wagner predicted that facial recognition technology, which has thus far been tested in only a few airport checkpoints, will advance to the point where it “really has the potential to transform the whole airport experience.”

Normally, such ambitious pronouncements tend to come from airlines or tech industries promoting these innovations, not from government bureaucrats – who are understandably cautious about anything that might be seen as an easing of security. 

But Wagner pointed out that the recent tests of Boston Logan Airport, in partnership with JetBlue, as well as other tests at Los Angeles and Miami, have led the agency to conclude that biometric facial recognition technology is not only highly accurate and secure, it’s also winning acceptance from the public.  

The technology works like this: passengers entering the airport will have their image captured at a kiosks, which can then be matched with the rest of the traveler’s details in their passenger name records. Once that picture is taken, it can be used to identify a passenger at every airport location where they need to show an ID.

This has the potential to not only speed up queues for international arrivals, but also to reduce lines at the TSA ID check station and even at the boarding gate.

“You can use your face as your boarding pass,” Wagner said, thus removing the need to present a paper boarding pass or a bar code on a phone.  “The system can identify someone in two or three seconds,” he added. It could also be used at airport lounges where fliers typically have to pull out their boarding passes.

The technology is also catching on elsewhere; in one ongoing test in Aruba, for example, facial IDs are already in place for KLM passengers flying to Amsterdam; at LAX Airport, Lufthansa recently tested the technology to give passengers the option of getting on the flight without showing a boarding pass, if they agreed to submit their biometric scans. 

A representative from Lufthansa on the same panel, Tamir Goudarzi Pour, addressed concerns about privacy, stressing that “we need to instill public confidence; we need to follow laws of the country and tell people how their data is being used.”   

But if the technology “gets people through the airport seamlessly,” he said, “it will be better for everyone.”

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