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Your Guide to Biometric Airline Boarding in the US

April 23, 2019
7 min read
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TPG's Darren Murph experienced Delta's biometric terminal in Atlanta (ATL) last November and I boarded an American Airlines flight to Auckland, New Zealand, using biometrics last December. Biometrics are already being used broadly by programs like CLEAR and Global Entry, as well as a few credit card issuers.

Now, some airlines -- in a constant attempt to speed up the boarding process -- are implementing biometric boarding procedures so that you don't need to present a boarding pass or open your passport during boarding. Here's what you should know about biometric boarding in the US.

What Airlines Use Biometric Boarding?

American Airlines, Delta and JetBlue use biometric boarding for select international flights from the US. Plus, a few international carriers including British Airways and Lufthansa use biometric boarding for some of their flights departing the US.

American Airlines began a 90-day pilot program for biometric boarding at Los Angeles (LAX) Terminal 4 in December. American is now evaluating "its potential expansion to more flights and locations throughout its global network."

(Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy)
Photo by JT Genter/TPG

Delta recently opened the first biometric terminal in the United States in Atlanta's (ATL) international terminal and plans to create a similar experience in Detroit. Besides this biometric terminal in ATL, Delta has conducted optional facial recognition boarding tests at ATL, Detroit (DTW), New York (JFK) and Washington (DCA) and recently tested a self-service biometric bag drop at Minneapolis-Saint Paul (MSP). Plus, Delta offers biometric entrance to domestic SkyClubs for eligible passengers in partnership with CLEAR.

JetBlue currently offers fully-integrated biometric self-boarding gates for some international flights departing from New York (JFK), although trial programs have also occurred in Boston (BOS), Fort Lauderdale (FLL) and DCA. The airline plans to expend its biometric boarding program to additional international flights from BOS and FLL later this year, as well as pilot a biometric bag drop station at JFK.

How Does Biometric Boarding Work?

TPG's Darren Murph and JT Genter recently wrote about their experiences using biometric boarding with Delta and American, while contributor Mike Arnot wrote about his experience using biometric boarding with British Airways. In each case, the process of using biometric boarding was relatively simple from a passenger standpoint.

If your gate is using biometric boarding, you'll line up when your boarding group is called as usual. You'll approach the desk or gate where your boarding pass would normally be scanned. For some biometric systems, you may need to remove your hat or glasses, or leave space between you and the next passenger. There may be marks on the ground showing where to stand, although an airline employee may also be directing passengers.

Photo by JT Genter/TPG

You may need to move closer or farther from the system, or even lean down if you're tall. But, in most cases the system will recognize you and display an image noting so. Then the gates will open or an agent will usher you forward. If the system rejects you, or you want to opt out, you'll need to see a boarding agent to have your boarding pass scanned and passport checked.

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What Happens Behind the Scenes?

So, you may be wondering how the biometric system is able to replace the normal passport and boarding pass check using just your face. Well, Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) cloud-based Traveler Verification Service uses flight manifests to generate biometric templates of the historical images of travelers for a given flight. These templates are built from photos that you submitted when you applied for a passport and/or images captured on previous entries to the US. The templates are temporarily stored in CBP's Virtual Private Cloud prior to boarding.

During boarding, a camera is used to capture a usable facial image and this image is transmitted to CBP's cloud-based facial matching service. The matching service generates a template from the image and uses that template to search the biometric templates of travelers on the manifest for a given flight. The matching service attempts to find a match between the newly-captured image template and the pool of previously-captured image templates. Then, the matching service returns “match/no-match” results to the airline.

The airlines are quick to note that they don't store any photos. Instead, each photo is immediately and securely sent to CBP and the airline simply gets a match/no match response. If you're interested in learning more about the technical details, head to the Department of Homeland Security website.

Benefits of Biometric Boarding

The main benefit of biometric boarding to passengers is that it is quicker. Delta's initial trials showed that the facial recognition option saves up to nine minutes per flight and Lufthansa's initial trials showed they could board approximately 350 passengers onto an A380 in about 20 minutes. As computer vision algorithms improve and customers become more acquainted to biometric boarding, the process will only become faster.

Even with media watching, biometric boarding was relatively snag-free
Media was on hand to capture biometric boarding for this Delta flight.

Biometric boarding is also easier -- especially with children or for elderly passengers -- since you don't need to search for boarding passes or have your passport open. And, boarding mistakes will be decreased if a positive biometric match is required for boarding.

Concerns with Biometric Boarding

Biometric boarding by JetBlue was recently brought into the spotlight when a passenger wrote on Twitter that she didn't consent to using biometric boarding.

The tweet got hundreds of comments and thousands of retweets and likes. Although the passenger eventually concluded that "opting out isn’t really an option" since her "data will have already been accessed and loaded into a database," her photo and data was loaded into the database when she applied for her passport. Indeed, US passport applications state that all of the information on your passport application can be "disclosed to another domestic government agency, a private contractor, a foreign government agency, or to a private person or private employer in accordance with certain approved routine uses."

You can opt out of using biometrics to board a flight by avoiding the cameras and instead asking the boarding agents to manually process you. But, opting out of biometric boarding simply means that an additional image of you won't be sent to CBP's cloud-based facial matching service. Your passport photo and/or entry photos are already in their system if you're taking an international flight from the US.

All photos by JT Genter and Darren Murph/TPG.

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