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When your face is your passport to faster travel

Posted 13 May 2020 · Add Comment

Passports and other documentation are set to become things of the past for Emirates Airline passengers travelling between Dubai and the US, with the arrival of biometric boarding systems. Alan Dron reports.

You’re heading into the security zone at an international airport. One hand is hauling your carry-on roller-bag, the other is carrying your briefcase or handbag. This is usually the point at which you have to begin a small but complicated juggling act, pulling out either a boarding card or smartphone, with its electronic boarding pass, then a passport as you approach departure control.
It’s not a major problem, but it’s one of a series of minor hassles that make getting on board a flight more difficult than you might like.
Those little irritations will shortly be in the past for passengers of Emirates Airline travelling between the carrier’s Dubai hub and the 12 cities to which it flies in the US.
The airline, together with US Customs Border Protection (CBP), have cooperated in designing a system that does away with paper or electronic documentation and, instead, relies on a biometric scan of the passenger’s face as they reach the gate for their flight.
The system was given its first outing last June in Washington DC, with the experiment being rolled out over the following two months to New York JFK and Los Angeles airports.
The intention is to expand its usage to the other nine US airports into which Emirates flies – Newark, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, San Francisco, Seattle, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale. This should have happened by the time this story is read, assuming the necessary equipment is installed on schedule.
The system works like this: it takes a photograph of the passenger’s face at the boarding gate, which is checked – usually within two seconds, according to CBP – against the huge gallery of digitised facial images held in its databank to verify the passenger’s identity.
This, of course, depends on the CBP already having the passenger’s facial data on file. So, if the traveller has not been to the US for many years, the system will reject them. In such cases, however, the passenger will simply have their identity manually checked by the gate agent, as at present.
Additionally, if a passenger does not wish to go through the scanning process, they can also choose to be boarded manually, as happens today.
The early tests in the US went well, said Emirates, with some flights achieving 100% biometric boarding and no manual checks. All data is held by CBP, not Emirates.
According to John Wagner, the CBP’s deputy executive assistant commissioner in the Office of Field Operations: “CBP has been working with our stakeholders, like Emirates, to build a simplified, but secure, travel process that aligns with CBP’s and the travel industry’s modernisation efforts.
“By comparing a traveller’s face to their passport, or visa photo, that was previously provided for the purpose of travel, we have streamlined identity verification that further secures and enhances the customer experience.”
His comments were echoed by Dr Abdulla Al Hashimi, divisional senior vice-president at Emirates Group Security.
“Emirates continues to explore and invest in innovative solutions for hassle-free travel that help our customers fly better. Our ultimate aim is to help our passengers travel paperless, without the need for passports and IDs.
“We are talking with the authorities of several countries to make security using facial recognition technology more acceptable and accessible.”
The Emirates-CBP tie-up is another move towards attempts to make airline passengers’ experiences on the ground more palatable. IATA has for some time been keen to promote the ‘one ID’ system, whereby a single document – probably digital – will replace passports, national ID cards and boarding cards.
This has sparked concerns over passengers having to hand over increasingly large amounts of personal information to the authorities. However, IATA says that its surveys have shown that a large majority of people are prepared to surrender such information in the search for greater convenience.
That manual juggling act at security is likely to be just a memory in a decade’s time.
 

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