Much as 9/11 triggered increased security in the wake of terrorist attacks, the aviation industry responded rapidly to the global COVID-19 pandemic, with priorities changing to ensure the health and safety of passengers, employees and service providers. Airports explored ways to offer a contactless environment. New technologies arrived, such as the Collins Aerospace Kiosk Connect, offering touch-free access via mobile phone. Autonomous cleaning robots equipped with UV light began to roam terminals. Hong Kong International Airport was the first in the world and Pittsburgh International the first in the United States to deploy these robots. And at Doha’s Hamad International Airport, staff donned Smart Helmets with infrared thermal imaging, artificial intelligence and an augmented reality display to check the temperatures of travelers.
Many changes will likely remain in place in the near term but will evolve to permanently transform the airport experience to a more passenger-centric process. Industry stakeholders long anticipated a digital transformation in an effort to create a faster, safer and more secure airport process — and allow aviation the flexibility and resilience to meet future demands without relying on ever-bigger airports. In this moment, the future is upon us.
In 2013 The Future of Travel Experience Global Think Tank’s “Vision 2025” report envisioned an airport walk-through experience with automated check-in, permanent bag tags and passenger identification tokens to be used at every checkpoint. The report predicted, “Historically, the industry has had an engineering focus all about flying aircraft — the future is about flying customers and providing customer- oriented service.”
Similarly, “The Future of Airports: a Vision of 2040 and 2070” — presented earlier this year by the Airport Think Tank of ENAC Alumni (the French National University of Civil Aviation) — foresees the transformation of airports from facility providers to mobility providers and hosts. In accommodating world population growth to about 9 billion in 2040 and 10.5 billion in 2070, future airport concepts will need to “go beyond grand architectural designs and get back to the roots of terminal design: providing a straightforward, seamless, and pleasant access to the aircraft from the curbside.”
IDEMIA, the technology company behind TSA PreCheck, believes biometrics — using a traveler’s face, iris or fingerprints as a travel document — will forever change the travel experience. Sooner rather than later, by tying their biometric identity to their ticket, travelers will enjoy contactless bag drop, stream- lined security and health screens, and faster boarding times. And by pre-enrolling using biometrics, travelers can anticipate individualized experiences once they arrive at the airport.
In a recent interview, Donnie Scott, senior vice president and general manager, Public Security, IDEMIA, acknowledged, “These conversations started pre-COVID, but they’ve really been accelerated during the last two quarters, as people look to a return to normalcy.”
Airports are at varying stages of biometric use — Dubai Airport’s Smart Tunnels, for example, recognize passengers as they walk through, completing immigration checks in just 15 seconds, and Singapore’s Seletar Airport implemented an IDEMIA biometric immigration system following its installation at Changi Airport. Here in the United States we are still on that journey. The TSA anticipates “a biometrics capability, built with strategic partners, that enhances aviation security, streamlines operations, and simplifies the user experience.”
IDEMIA has worked with the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol to test a biometric entry/exit system for all international travelers, with some airlines trialing this technology. It’s in the process of rolling out nationwide, with EWR, LAX, ATL and others already deploying the technology.
The case for the biometric solutions is strong, as most biographic information — date of birth, social security number, mother’s maiden name — has often been compromised, but as Scott said, “your self is your self.” And as the CBP reports, biometrics can process passenger identification not only faster but with greater consistency and accuracy than the in-person process.
Nonetheless, some people raise concerns about privacy and cybersecurity. “IDEMIA focuses on enabling mobile devices to be an authoritative use of, and a repository for, the self,” explained Scott. “We don’t centrally house anything. We’re the connective tissue that enables a secure transaction to occur between a citizen and a commercial or government entity. Our goal is to build that privacy into the architecture. We’re used to double-clicking our phones to make a payment at a vending machine that we trust, and we see the same vision for travel.”
IDEMIA envisions a fully integrated biometric security system which manages a passenger’s journey in a process it dubs “couch to gate,” rather than the traditional curb to gate. In this future vision, your journey begins in the comfort of your own home using your mobile device to enroll as a passenger, capturing your own biometrics. A unique, secure and digital travel document is created. Either your biometrics are stored securely in your boarding pass, or your fingers, iris and face are your boarding pass.
The pre-enrollment of passengers enables airports and airlines to better understand who their customers are and direct them when they show up. It establishes a digital relationship that allows a high level of trust and communication in advance of their arrival. It allows for a contactless process with social distancing in place. And it means security agents can focus on the high-risk exception case and spend less time looking at people who have a high level of trust because they started that process at home.
In the vision of future terminals, where both the security and the passenger experience are built naturally into the infrastructure, airport management can essentially recognize on the go, without passengers ever stopping to interact with anything. IDEMIA’s newly launched MFace Flex enables that process by using a multicamera identification infrastructure that recognizes people of varying heights — for example, a family with children or people in wheelchairs — without their having to stop in front of a specific camera.
The power of pre-enrollment and a digital travel document will also make the airport experience more pleasant. When you arrive as an anticipated guest, the biometric data can be used to optimize your mobility through the individual components at the airport.
“The goal, whether you talk to a car rental place, a hotel, an airline or the parking infrastructure at airports,” said Scott, “is they’re all trying to get better at timing and queuing the passenger experience. If you break down each one of those individual components, the airports themselves and the travel providers that serve the community both on the government and commercial side are all working to understand each of those individual pieces, the time that each takes, to make a predictive travel time estimate for each traveler that’s individualized for that traveler.”
According to Scott, we’ll likely see security lines and check-ins reimagined, lounges and restaurants reimagined — not just as we come out of COVID but as we better use technology and better understand how the time is spent in the airport, at the individual traveler level on an individual day. With the airport acting as a mobility provider, the goal is that nobody ever misses their flight and that nobody ever has to arrive more than a couple of minutes prior to the expected departure time.
So imagine that on your couch-to-gate journey, you arrive at the airport already checked in. You have an estimate of the time it will take to get from the car park to the plane. You can drop off your checked bag at a contactless kiosk which recognizes your biometrics and prints a bag tag. You’re pre-enrolled, so the TSA knows you, your carrier knows you, and they can direct you to the right security checkpoint and the right check-in area by your status. You know how many minutes it will take to get through the TSA checkpoint based on historical volumes and the known travelers that day. As you walk through security, the biometric scanner recognizes and verifies you (you do not have to remove shoes or jackets or take your laptop out of the bag).You know how long it will take to walk from the security area to the gate, so you’ll know if you have time to visit the lounge, where you can biometrically gain access. When you receive a boarding alert on your phone, you head to the e-gate where the camera verifies you as a passenger on the departure manifest, and you’re on your way to your seat. Then, once you arrive at your destination, you receive a specific time to pick up your checked bag, without having to wait in a crowded baggage claim area.
The future biometric vision assumes a collaboration of travelers, airports, airlines and governments. Scott envisions a time when, “If you start back on your couch, and we know who you are before you get there, and your willingness to share information or the sources of record become something you control and you enable it, then we start dialing way down on the risk profile of who you are when you show up. And because you’re the only one with your face and you’re the only one with your fingerprints, you’re the only one with your travel documents, you’re the only one with your cellphone, you, the traveler, pick how you’re comfortable in sharing and granting use of those things, and we can make a really nice travel experience.”
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