Facial ‘Tokens’ Are the Key to the Future of Boarding Planes

Sep 16, 2017

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If you have been wondering what the next big thing may be when is comes to flying, it is likely not to be something you’ll see on the plane, but something that will help get you on board faster and with less hassle. That thing is biometric screening, and it’s what we’ve all been waiting for.

At the Future Travel Experience (FTE) Global conference in Las Vegas this week, the word “token” was being used as a buzzword. What does a so-called token get you, in terms of the airport experience?

Step One

In step one of your check-in process at home or at an airport kiosk, you scan your passport, and you take a seflie (at home) or the kiosk takes a photo of you which is then matched to your ID photo behind the scenes by a government agency such as US Customs and Border Patrol. Once you arrive at the airport, you tell the kiosk how many bags you’re checking, and it prints a bag tag, which you attach to your luggage yourself.

Step Two

You take your bag to a bag drop, where you scan the bag tag that you’ve attached to your suitcase, and the bag drop machine scans your face to make sure it matches the photo taken at the kiosk earlier. Off your bag goes, through its security screening and onto the plane.

Step Three

The dreaded security line. Companies are still working on ways to make this less of a hassle, but facial scanning should help reduce the wait times to have your carry-on luggage and body scanned, because the scanners will work faster than humans. In addition, a facial scan prior to entering the line will provide the airline an opportunity to see if you’re stuck in line, or were perhaps detained for some reason.

Step Four

Following your body scan and carry-on bag check, you make your way to the lounge, if you’re lucky enough to be a premium passenger. Instead of scanning a boarding pass, a facial scanner will recognize you, welcome you to your flight, and pull up your frequent flier profile. Upon your arrival, the airline’s native app can send a push notification to your phone, such as “Welcome, Mr. Thompson! Would you like your preferred beverage from our bar?” Your lounge checkin will also serve to tell the airline where you are, should it come close to departure time, and have you paged if necessary. Or, the airline can message your phone saying, “Mr. Thompson, please board your flight now.”


Once you make your way to your gate, there’s no need to take out your boarding pass or passport. That’s only required at step one. The biometric facial scanner can recognize you from up to 10 feet away, opening a glass partition to make your way onto the plane without even stopping.

But What About Privacy?

Many people are concerned about privacy, having their face scanned at every point as they move through the airport. The vendors I spoke to (IER and VisionBox) assured me that they destroy the data they collect on a daily basis. Perhaps I’m a bit naive in my assumptions, but I’ve always subscribed to the idea that if you’re not doing anything shady, you’d have no reason to worry if the government has a photo of you going through an airport. After all, there are security cameras on every street corner in large cities, so you’re already being watched constantly.

The 2017 SITA Passenger IT Trends Survey found that biometric passenger flow is something that passengers do want and enjoy. Passengers who had experienced biometric processes in airports ranked their overall airport experiences higher than others who were managed by person to person contact.

In my opinion, the less you have to talk to airline or security agents, the smoother your travel experience will be. Biometric tech is something many of us have already come to accept in our daily lives in the form of thumbprint ID matches to open our smartphones, and even facial recognition in the upcoming iPhone X.

I view this as a genuinely harmless way to streamline the efficiency and speed of screening at airports, and who doesn’t want that? Governmental agencies can still access it on the back end, should they need to know if a certain watch-listed person attempted to fly through that airport. If for some reason you don’t want an easy boarding process, you can opt to go through the more invasive traditional document check process and body pat-down, like you can today.

Where are biometrics already happening? One company, IER (top video) has it deployed at Charles De Gaulle (CDG) Airport in Paris, at 87 gates. Another company, Vision Box (bottom video) has it installed in Aruba (AUA) and Amsterdam (AMS). It will also install the system soon at Los Angeles (LAX) Tom Bradley International Terminal, at a gate used by the massive Airbus A380. I’m told the system will allow the plane to be boarded in as little as 20 minutes!

The Benefits

For airports, biometric screening can offer improved passenger management. For example, it costs a lot less to run 10 biometric kiosks around the clock than it does to staff checkpoints based on daily peaks and lulls. It also reduces the human error factor: machines don’t become complacent, but an agent might. Speeding passengers through security also gives passengers more time to spend money on shopping and dining.

With airlines, as I mentioned earlier, biometric checking gives them an idea of where you are in the airport, and the opportunity to have you paged or messaged when it comes close to departure time. This could potentially improve on-time performance. It also gives airlines the chance to really personalize the experience for their most valued customers.

For border patrol authorities, it offers risk-assessment-based border management. For most passengers, they’ll pass right through. But if they need to question why you’ve been traveling between certain countries regularly, for example, your passport history will be available.

While connecting in Toronto this week, between Montreal and Denver, I went through no less than four document checks or boarding pass scans, plus a random swab test for explosives before I even got to the actual security check for my bag to be scanned. The streamlining capability of biometric screening almost sounds too good to be true, but once airports have the infrastructure installed, we’ll all wonder why this didn’t happen sooner.

Does the idea of biometric screening appeal to you, or does it feel like another way that we’re being watched by Big Brother? Let us know in the comments below.

Featured Image by Ian Waldie / Getty Images

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