Biometric Boarding is Coming Whether You Like It Or Not (and You Should Like It)

I headed out to gate 152 in the Bradley Terminal at LAX last Thursday to watch British Airways board a 787 bound for London. This may sound incredibly boring, but it was actually rather fascinating. The test was really a media event designed to show off technology to board an aircraft using facial recognition and nothing else. This sounds like a novelty. After all, why would an airline invest so much money into facial recognition just to save a few bucks on printing paper boarding passes? But there’s much more to this. It involves a US Congressional mandate, so get ready for this to become the norm. Don’t worry, it’s not a bad thing.

What’s this about a Congressional mandate? Remember back when the decision was made to enforce stricter exit procedures for people leaving the US? The initial assumption was that this was just going to bog down the airport experience further. In other countries, it’s fairly common to pass through an immigration checkpoint upon departure so they can note that you are leaving the country. We don’t do that in the US at all. Instead, we just rely on the collection of a boarding pass as proof someone has left. Congress wanted to change that so we had better data on travelers coming in and out, and many feared we’d see yet another painful checkpoint. That is fortunately not the path Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is pursuing. Instead, the exit process can be embedded in the boarding of the aircraft. Even more surprising, it can actually make boarding an aircraft quicker and easier.

There are a variety of boarding gates being tested out there today, but this particular one at gate 152 was built by . The four boarding positions are enabled once the flight is ready for boarding. Travelers walk up and look into the camera with the unit automatically adjusting the camera up and down to match height. That’s when the technology starts to get magical. CBP has a vast database of photos from every time a traveler comes into the US. US passport holders also have their passport photos, Global Entry photos, etc. So when the camera looks at the traveler’s face, it sends the data to CBP and CBP’s computers get to work to find a match. If there is a match, the person is noted as leaving the country, and the gate opens.

In previous tests, the traveler then steps through the gate and hands over a boarding pass, but BA has gone one step further. When CBP clears the traveler, there is a token sent to BA which then is translated into determining if the person actually is booked on that flight. If so, the gate opens and the person can just walk right on the airplane. Here’s about a minute’s worth of footage I took showing the boarding process.

As you can see, the process takes only a few seconds but time can vary. Those people having more/better photos in the database get cleared more quickly than those with limited history. Long hair, white t-shirt guy, for example, sailed right through. Meanwhile, Marty McFly and his red life preserver/vest never got through despite multiple tries. For the most part, it worked well, but there were several errors that required people to go around. (All children under 12 have to go around no matter what since they aren’t photographed entering the country.) Even with the errors, I counted that it took about 13 minutes to board that 787.

Does this save time? It does. On a regular international flight, the gate agent has to scan the boarding pass, look at the passport, and ensure that the names match and the photo is a good likeness. Sometimes people don’t have their boarding passes readily available. It can take time. This system ends up being much quicker, even with the brief delay on scanning. And for the passenger, it’s easy since all you need is your face. (You do have to show a passport somewhere at check-in since the arrival country is going to require that you have it… for now.)

With the government requiring this biometric exit process, it’s now just a matter of who ends up paying for all the technology. It’s not cheap, but considering the primary push is coming from Congress, you’d think the feds would pony up the funds, or at least most of it. That’ll have to be worked out, but no matter what, this is going to be coming to an airport near you. I see absolutely no issue with a country keeping better track of who is coming in and out with technology like this. And considering it makes things more convenient and faster, I’m not complaining at all.

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