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Sumesh Patel, SITA’s Asia Pacific president, argues that biometric technology will play a key role in ensuring faster, more efficient and safer passenger journeys through airports in the future.

How do you balance the two most critical aspects of border control? Passengers don’t want to wait, but airports and border authorities need to ensure the wrong people don’t get through border control.

How can we guarantee comprehensive security while satisfying passengers’ desire to get through the airport as quickly and easily as possible? These questions become even more complex when you consider that passenger numbers are only going up.

According to IATA, global airline passenger numbers are forecasted to grow from a projected 4.3 billion this year to 7.8 billion by 2036, with more than half that growth expected in Asia- Pacific. An additional 2.1 billion passengers in Asia-Pacific represents more than double the current traffic in the region.

The quest for free-flowing passenger movement across borders is further complicated when you consider that most airports face a real-estate challenge: there simply isn’t enough space to build new terminals. Instead, airports will have to consider how they can be more efficient with the space they already use.

Biometric future

So, how can airports and border authorities make sure they carry out adequate checks on every single passenger to identify the tiny proportion who are not authorised to travel while avoiding snaking queues at border control?

This is where biometrics will play a huge role as biometric identifiers are unique to each passenger and, crucially, the latest technologies are intuitive, fast and accurate.

The end-game is for all airports to use biometrics to create a single identification token for passengers at every step in their journey, from check-in, bag drop, and security, right through to boarding and border control.

Typically, the passenger’s biometric details are captured through a facial scan at the first touchpoint in the journey. The record is checked against the passenger’s travel documents – normally their passport – and a secure single token is created. Then, at each step of the journey passengers gain access simply with a facial scan and without having to show their travel documents.

Automation and secure biometrics lessens the risks of human error during manual checks by airline agents while also making the process more efficient and pleasant. It removes the need to show paper documents and passports at various stages of the airport journey before passengers
get on a plane.

Theoretically, passengers can breeze through all processes without breaking their stride. All they need is their face.

Importance of integration

How can airports harness the benefits of biometrics most efficiently? Integration with legacy business processes and systems, and external systems such as government watch lists is a big challenge.

Integration must be cost-efficient and done in a way that works for every airline at every airport. The best way to do so is by leveraging the existing shared common-use IT infrastructure at airports around the globe.

And it’s not as simple as integrating one or two systems. Comprehensive border control requires a multi-layered approach that encompasses several stakeholder organisations across multiple systems and departments.

It’s only when you have that level of synergy and integration that you get real-time, intelligence-based risk assessment of passengers. Being at the heart of the air travel industry, SITA is in a unique position to facilitate this collaboration between airports, airlines and the government.


Real world examples

It will take a little time before we see biometrics at every stage of every airport journey, but Brisbane Airport is setting a good example for airports looking to make the most of the technology.

SITA Smart Path is in use at Brisbane Airport, giving passengers a biometric single token experience from check-in to the aircraft door, helping them fast-track through the airport.

The solution integrates into existing kiosks and boarding common-use systems ensuring easy implementation. Air New Zealand passengers are the first to be able to use it, but the airport is looking to add more airlines and more touchpoints.

As we wait for ubiquitous biometric single token travel, we’re already getting accustomed to the ease of biometric passport checks. Most of us have experienced the process: place your ePassport on the reader, wait a few seconds, and walk through the open gate. It’s very easy-to-use and saves you time.

For airports and airlines, it is also more cost and operationally efficient, allowing  more passengers to be processed using the same level of human resources.

And it’s not just passport control. Biometric boarding looks set to become the norm sooner rather than later, with a series of recent trials around the world showing the benefits of enabling passengers to board with a quick facial scan or picture. Passengers simply look at a camera to get through different stages of the journey.

A major consideration for Asian airlines is how they will manage the US biometric exit check, which is increasingly popular at airports in the US following a number of successful trials.

JetBlue, for example, is using biometric facial recognition boarding in collaboration with SITA and the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency at Boston Logan International Airport.

SITA is also taking part in a joint initiative between British Airways, Greater Orlando Aviation Authority and CBP, which incorporates US biometric exit checks for passengers flying out of Orlando.

No time like the present

This isn’t a transient phase of identity management. Biometrics are here to stay. Passengers and airports both stand to benefit from embracing biometric technology more wholeheartedly. They’ve become the norm in our daily lives, as we unlock our phones, our laptops, and even our cars, so it makes total sense.

Our research shows that 63% of airports and 43% of airlines plan to invest in biometric ID management solutions in the next three years. Instead of waiting and watching, now is the time to embrace biometrics at every stage of the airport journey.

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