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How will biometric technologies transform passenger experience at airports?

Air transport stakeholders face a key challenge: the industry forecasts a doubling of air passenger traffic over the next 20 years[1], which airport capacity will not be able to accommodate. At the same time, recent technological innovations have raised travelers’ expectations for a seamless, secure

Air transport stakeholders face a key challenge: the industry forecasts a doubling of air passenger traffic over the next 20 years[1], which airport capacity will not be able to accommodate. At the same time, recent technological innovations have raised travelers’ expectations for a seamless, secure, efficient and personalized journey. In that sense, procedures’ automation through self-service facilities come as a major need beyond the check in process. While at first sight this expectation seems simple to fulfil, the facilitation of domestic and cross border movement is a highly sensitive issue, at a time when security concerns are rising and require more stringent scrutiny of each traveler. Biometrics have been identified as a key enabler to securely and seamlessly facilitate the passenger processes at airports.

How will biometrics shape the future traveler experience and how advanced are airport biometric initiatives?


[1] IATA report (2016)

A target vision: an end to end seamless, secure and efficient passenger journey enabled by biometrics

Explanation of the target: the biometric end to end enabled airport

The concept of an “all biometric airport “ambitions the use of passenger biometrics to replace all forms of travel documentations for self-identification and authentication at all stages of his journey throughout the airport. In other words, the passenger will be able to proceed from check-in to boarding a flight using biometric self-service facilities which will verify his identity at all touchpoints (check in, bag drop, border clearance, boarding) without the need to present any further document. The passenger biometric details (iris, face, or fingerprints) will be created at the first touchpoint (for example at check in) or even by taking a “selfie” on a dedicated mobile application. At this stage called the enrollment process, the traveler’s digital biometrics are captured, stored on a secure platform, and matched with the passenger’s travel documents to create a “single token” while background checks via government agencies’ databases are performed.

At every subsequent step of the journey, the token will be used to identify the passenger through biometric recognition (iris, fingerprint or facial) whilst removing the need to present travel documents, either the boarding pass or the passport.

The platform which stores the passenger digital record is developed according to the “privacy by design” principle: at each airport step, only the stakeholder who is allowed to see and need to see the information to handle the passenger will have access to it, be it the airline, the airport, or a government agency. This way the passenger can be recognized and attended in the most efficient way, whilst its privacy is entirely respected.

To the extent possible, and with the passenger’s consent, biometric enrollment is persistent for a certain period of time, and does not need to be repeated for every trip.

The long-term objective is that such single travel tokens will be used not only on a specific airport but also more broadly between airports across departure, transfer and arrival processes for domestic as well as international flights.

Figure 2: The End To End biometric Airport

Target benefits across the travel value chain

The all biometric airport will be beneficial for all stakeholders involved in the passenger journey.

First of all, at the very heart of all airport biometric initiatives, the customer experience will be highly improved. The passenger anxiety will be reduced as the process becomes fast, seamless and eliminates redundant document checks. Waiting times will be considerably reduced, as most of the steps will be handled automatically through self-service facilities. As an indirect effect, airport non-aeronautical revenues might increase as passengers will have more time to spend airside.
Productivity in handling the travelers throughout their journey will be enhanced. The former manual ID check will be automated, leaving government agencies’ staff the opportunity to focus on higher risk profile passengers. Airlines will gain in efficiency at bag drop and even more at boarding, with the possibility of self-service boarding.

Airport processes will be streamlined through information sharing between the relevant actors increasing real time visibility of where the passengers are in the airport process. For airlines, locating late passengers could trigger checked baggage identification for possible off loads, securing on time departure.  This can also facilitate the transfer process: passengers with short connection times would be identified for expedited processing, and increased opportunities for passenger engagement and ancillary sales would be offered. Furthermore, passenger flows will be better managed through staff allocation to anticipate peaks and congestion, leading to further staffing efficiencies for all stakeholders.

Better demand anticipation will furthermore lead to an improved space usage and capacity gains with the ability to process more passengers faster, which for airports will represent the opportunity to defer or avoid infrastructure expansion.

Overall, the security will be improved through a verification of passengers’ identity throughout their journey, reducing the possibilities to travel across borders under a false identity. Queues reduction in airport landside areas will substantially decrease the risk of terrorism actions.

Figure 3: Stakeholders' benefits

Initiatives to reach target vision are sustained by both private and public air security stakeholders

International aeronautical organizations work on standards and recommended practices to foster airport biometrics solutions adoption

IATA[1] plays a key role in encouraging the collaboration between air transport stakeholders and facilitating global implementation of new initiatives through frameworks and standards.

The organization has developed numerous programs to sustain its vision of an airport “end-to-end passenger experience that is seamless, efficient and secure”. One ID and Single Token initiatives stem from the recognition that little coordination has led so far to multiple tokens (boarding passes, passports or other ID documents) required to be presented repeatedly for various purposes during the traveler journey. One ID relies on the early validation of a traveler digital identity, its storage and sharing between public and private stakeholders along the journey following a “privacy by design” principle (in other words: on a need-to-know and authorized-to-know basis).

The Single Token concept is the creation of a single record or “token” storing biometrics and travel documents. This dataset is created when the traveler’s biometric details are captured and matched with the passport, and subsequently used at all touchpoints through biometric identification thus allowing paper free processes.

ICAO[2] Traveler Identification Program (TRIP) purpose is to establish a global framework for traveler identification management for the different partners involved in the process. From ID documents creation compliant with ICAO specifications to the interoperability of inspection operations with external databases including INTERPOL stolen and lost travel document, watchlists, “trusted or “expedited” travelers lists.  

Government agencies frame regulations to promote quick and secure border crossing

Countries seek to improve customs border control process through bilateral or multilateral traveler facilitation programs. Under these schemes, eligible passengers are able to pass airport through automated border control systems following successful background checks and the recording of biometric data.

Some border control agencies are pushing for global biometric adoption at airport security in their respective countries. As part of the Seamless Traveler program, Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) has the ambition to introduce biometric identification at all international airports borders & customs by 2020. In an attempt to strengthen security, US CBP[3] has developed the controversial biometric air exit initiative. All international passengers departing from US airports will have their photo taken by a facial recognition system, which will be cross checked with a DHS[4] database. More than verifying the passenger identity, the purpose is to ensure foreigners haven’t overstayed visas or are illegally present in the US. The initiative has been long criticized as raising privacy and civil liberty concerns and shown technical limitations. However, it has gone through major advances under the impulsion of President Trump with a target to be deployed beyond all US airports to US land borders with Canada and Mexico.

Airports together with airlines and technology providers launch trials with various maturity stages

To date, biometric technologies have been extensively deployed at airports with the primary objective to facilitate the immigration clearing process with over 4,800 automated border control gates [5] and passport control kiosks [6] being deployed across 73 countries [7].

In recent years however, airport trials on biometrics identification and authentication have been conducted with the aim to cover further stages of the airport passenger journey.

Bangalore, Singapore Changi and Aruba airports pilot programs are well advanced with the potential to offer end to end self-service options for the passengers from check in to boarding the flight through the use of facial recognition. Bangalore airport states that when deployed, the new system will not only streamline the airport processes but more importantly enhance security as today identity is not verified against the boarding pass, either at the time of security check or at aircraft boarding.

Some trials have investigated the potential of biometrics to replace ID and travel documents. Aruba Happy Flow project employs Vision-Box facial recognition technology as the basis of a single passenger token. A photo of the traveler or “biometric record” is taken when the passenger checks-in, which is linked to the travel documents, while border control background checks are performed. Later on, at each of the passenger checkpoints, a camera compares the passenger face with the biometric record to confirm identity and grants approval to continue the journey based on the traveler information associated.

The enrollment process which refers to the stage when the traveler biometric record is taken (photo, fingerprint) can happen at various steps of the passenger journey; at check in through special registration kiosks, at bag drop off, at security, prior to boarding room, or even prior arriving at the airport.

Figure 4: biometric initiatives at the different passenger touchpoints

Dubai airport UAE Wallet App enables passengers to store their biometric data by taking a selfie with their smartphone together with their passport and travel documents. Quite out of the box, the airport also plans to deploy by end 2018 a virtual aquarium at T3. security, equipped with 80 cameras for passenger facial and iris recognition as they walk through.

What challenges remain to address?

Technological limitations causing incorrect rejections or misrecognition of passengers

Biometrics identification and authentication processes are by essence relying on probabilities that the traveler’s biometric details submitted when using a self-service facility match the ones previously stored in a reference database when the traveler first enrolled. In other words, since two face scans for the same person taken at different times can never be 100% similar, biometric technologies need to determine whether they correspond to the same individual based on a close match and not an exact match. The challenge resides therefore in achieving a high level of accuracy in identity confirmation for any individual. Two major types of errors can occur, which are used as metrics to measure the systems’ performance. False Acceptance Rates measure occurrences of cases when a system authorized an unauthorized person. False Rejection Rates measure cases when the system fails to recognize a traveler who was yet authorized to pass through the biometric self-service facility.

Furthermore, there is a greater risk of error when attempting to compare the live biometrics to the biometrics registered as the time lapse increases since an individual’s biometrics might change over time. This reveals a critical limitation to the promise of security through biometric technology, especially in the case of terror suspects whose chances not to be recognized might increase over time. 

The need for a global and trusted framework to foster cooperation between private and public stakeholders at an international level

Passenger identification and authentication at the airport involves many stakeholders beyond air transport traditional actors, from civil registries and travel issuance authorities to regional and international organizations such as the World Customs Organization or government agencies issuing watchlists.

Figure 5: Stakeholders involved in traveler identity management

For the all biometric airport vision to come true, collaboration between such public and private stakeholders involved in passenger identification and authentication must be enhanced at all steps, including off airport processes. As such, the global implementation of common biometric standards set by ICAO will support the global issuance of traveler documents that can be automatically inspected through certified biometric recognition facilities. Governments are the principle issuers of physical authentication documents and could together with key regulators play a key role in establishing frameworks for a secure and trusted digital identity in respect to individual privacy. Checklists will need to be further developed and shared to increase security intelligence.

For the airport processes to be streamlined by new biometric technologies, common standards should be pushed to develop interoperable systems through which the relevant stakeholders can securely exchange the passenger data. Such standards would describe business and technical requirements, specify data models and governance and should be applicable across the end to end passenger journey at both national and international levels.

Above standards, all stakeholders will need to be convinced of the new added value of biometrics before collaborating and exchanging data, starting from the customers themselves. Travelers must be convinced that their data is secured and see the tangible benefits before sharing their biometric details and shifting to an automated end to end biometric process.


Biometrics present the opportunity to revolutionize air travel experience and therefore improve its competitivity compared to other transport modes. The claim that the airport process is stressful and time consuming will soon no longer be valid, with the passenger becoming in control of his journey. Many initiatives launched at various levels support the end to end biometric airport vison to come true. However, this long-term goal will be reached progressively as obstacles are removed: technological limitations, privacy concerns, cooperation between actors are all challenges which all need to be further addressed.


[1]International Air Transport Association

[2] International Civil Aviation Organization

[3] Customs Border Clearance

[4] Department of Homeland Security

[5] Automatized self-service gate at immigration

[6] Kiosks for electronic customs declaration (US)

[7] Source : Acuity Market Intelligence report (2018)