Biometric Screening Use on the Rise at U.S. Airports

Facial recognition is the most popular, with programs using the technology from checking in to boarding.

December 09, 2021

Facial Recognition

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—U.S. airports are increasingly utilizing biometric screening to automate processes, reports the New York Times. Many of the latest biometric developments use facial recognition, which is 99.5% accurate, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

“For biometrics to work, you have to be able to match to a known trusted source of data because you’re trying to compare it to a record on file. The face is the easiest because all the documents we use that prove your identity—driver’s licenses, passports etc.—rely on face,” said Sherry Stein, the head of technology in the Americas for SITA, a Switzerland-based biometrics tech company.

One of the most recognizable biometrics operator in airports is CLEAR, which is a subscription-based service where members pay $179 a year and use iris scans and fingerprints to advance travelers past TSA lines. CLEAR recently has launched CLEAR Health Pass, which is a digital health record, free to users, that clears an individual based on things like vaccine requirements for expedited admission at participating sports venues.

Privacy remains a major concern for biometric screening, so programs remain opt in. Companies that use the technology say they do not retain information, such as images in facial recognition programs, so the companies largely rely on willing travelers who agree to their use. However, a 2021 passenger survey by the International Air Transport Association found that 73% of passengers are willing to share their biometric data to improve airport processes, up from 46% in 2019.

The Times suggests three biometric advancements that are going to be more widespread in the coming years.

Bag-check-to-boarding facial recognition: Travelers will be able to use facial recognition for their entire trip, including checking their bags, TSA and boarding their flight. Delta is testing this in its digital identity program for TSA PreCheck members at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Users must use the program by submitting their passport number, which provides the backend check on your identity using your passport photo, even though the new program is domestic only.

Testing biometrics without passports: Since more than half of the U.S. population doesn’t have a passport, the biometrics company SITA tested a system earlier this year with United Airlines at San Francisco International Airport that used driver’s licenses as well as passports as the documents of record to compare to facial scans for bag check and domestic boarding. SITA said the trial was successful, thanks to the growth of Real I.D., which standardizes requirements for driver’s licenses nationwide.

Facial recognition at the border: The U.S. Customers and Border protection is using facial recognition technology kiosks for Global Entry members, which can move travelers through customs in minutes. More broadly, Customers and Border Protection uses facial comparison technology for entry to the United States at nearly 200 airports and 12 seaports used by cruise lines.

International biometric boarding: American Airlines, United and Delta are experimenting with biometric boarding of outbound international flights. United says that more than 250 international outbound flights a week are boarded biometrically, and that the airline plans to expand to additional hubs next year.