Delta Air Lines hopes to speed passengers through airports with biometrics starting next week

Oct 26, 2021

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Delta Air Lines is testing new biometric technology that promises to speed you through the airport — or at the very least prevent you from repeatedly fumbling for your ID and boarding pass.

The new technology will roll out in Atlanta and Detroit as soon as Nov. 3.

It is only open to Delta SkyMiles members who have U.S. passports and are eligible for TSA PreCheck. They must first store their passport number in the Fly Delta app, and this new service is only open to those checking in via the app.

The biometric information is pulled from a U.S. Customs and Border Protection database of passport photos — hence the need for an American passport. Passengers need to opt into the service. Delta hopes to expand the program to some European passport holders who also have PreCheck or Global Entry in the future.

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Airlines have been talking for years about using biometrics to speed passengers through the airport. For instance, Lufthansa has been using biometric boarding gates at airports for several years. And Delta has even used the technology since November 2018 in its international terminal in Atlanta.

This latest expansion brings biometrics to domestic travelers for the first time.

Delta is promising to make the technology part of the entire journey. CEO Ed Bastian has long talked about the power of technology to transform the travel experience — and our lives.

During a 2020 keynote speech at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Bastian promised that technology would make travel magical.

“We see technology as a tool to further our mission of connecting people and creating opportunities,” he said at the time. “We’re not chasing shiny objects or tech for the sake of being cool. We are dedicated to solving your travel problems and making your voyages – and your lives – easier.”

Delta was already the first U.S. airline to add RFID technology to its bag tags, helping to lower the number of lost suitcases. Biometrics is the obvious next step.

RELATED: Global Entry vs. TSA PreCheck: Which is better?

This pilot program runs through June when the airline hopes that the Transportation Security Administration will clear it for permanent use and expansion to other major airports.

Ranjan Goswami, Delta’s senior vice president for customer experience, said the goal of all this technology isn’t just to make the journey faster but also less stressful.

“In today’s world where every minute of our life is scheduled, I think people want to make sure that we at Delta are respecting their time and finding all the opportunities to reduce the time that it takes for them to get on board the airplane,” he told TPG.

Express bag check

This will probably be the biggest time savings for Atlanta flyers.

Delta has created a new PreCheck express bag drop just for people who have opted into the trial program.

It is on the lower level, right at the start of the south terminal.

With a quick look at a screen, passengers can be recognized and have a kiosk print out a tag for them to add to the suitcase before putting it on the belt.

If there is a bag fee to be collected, passengers must pay it first on the app. Delta says most passengers using this service will either have elite status or a Delta American Express card that includes a free checked bag.

RELATED: Best Delta credit cards of 2021

Oversized bags such as golf clubs or skis wouldn’t be eligible to use this device.

More than 25% of Atlanta-based Delta flyers already qualify for this expedited experience without having to add any extra information to the app.

Similar facial recognition cameras will be deployed in Detroit but there won’t — for now — be a dedicated check-in space for biometric customers.

Security checkpoint

This is where airlines and the TSA might ultimately be able to improve passengers’ trips the most.

But don’t expect any miracles here overnight.

Passengers will be quickly verified by looking at a camera at a TSA station. There’s no need to show a boarding pass or ID.

(Photo by Scott Mayerowitz/The Points Guy)

Yet, Delta isn’t setting up the trial with a separate, special lane. In Atlanta, biometric passengers are still going to have to wait in the normal PreCheck line – which can sometimes have a substantial wait.

Those with Clear memberships – which is most top-tier Delta elite members – are going to be better off using the Clear lane to skip the normal PreCheck queue.

Passengers could still be asked, randomly, to show the TSA their boarding pass or ID or be pulled aside for extra screening.

RELATED: Clear expedited airport security program — Is it worth it?

Byron Merritt, Delta’s vice president of brand experience design, said that he can’t see this technology replacing Clear.

Clear only looks at passengers’ iris or fingerprints; the Delta biometrics is more complicated.

“I think there’ll always be a need for Clear because customers choose their own comfort in terms of what’s best for them,” he said. “We don’t see this superseding Clear and we don’t see it the other way around.”

Delta does believe that more people will opt in for this new, touchless option following the pandemic. Basically, the theory goes: the pandemic has helped to speed up the public’s acceptance of the technology over any privacy fears.

Boarding

Delta will probably unveil biometrics for SkyClub access in the near future, Merritt noted.

Then, there will be one final use: at the gate.

Passengers will look at a screen where the gate agent is – pull down their mask – and then be verified to board.

Delta will roll out the technology for boarding planes at Atlanta’s “T” gates and Detroit’s “A” gates.

This is great for the person who no longer needs to fumble through their pockets for a boarding pass. Or, instead of pausing your phone call, finding your boarding pass on your phone, scanning it and then resume your call, you can now just walk right on the plane.

There will be limits as to how much this will all ease the trip.

Sure, passengers might board faster but this technology does nothing to clear the backlog of passengers waiting in the jet bridge or clogging the aircraft aisle, waiting for room in the overhead bin.

Featured photo by Scott Mayerowitz/The Points Guy

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