Making the face fit – biometrics and airport

Imagine this. You arrive at the airport for your flight. At an airport kiosk, or more likely earlier from home, using your pc or laptop, you digitally provide your biometric identity in a way that enables everyone concerned to identify you as the passenger.

At the airport this enables you to use the self-check-in kiosk, the self-service bag drop, and obtain automated access to security check points, before passing through border control using an unmanned but remotely observed e-gate. Then, after having more time for shopping or eating, you proceed onto the plane through an electronic self-service boarding gate.

This far from futuristic scenario, enabling airports, airlines, immigration, and security to have a joined up biometric approach to travellers, is where most major airports are now headed. Already in different parts of the world, including the US, New Zealand and Singapore, versions of this are being introduced or are under trial and are expected to become commonplace within the next few years

Biometric identification of travellers will not end annoying but essential security checks on carry-on items, but it will speed up the overall process for passengers between arriving at an airport and departure.

The approach is based on facial recognition technology and every individual’s consequent unique biometric identity. In outline, it involves a passenger’s face being checked against the image held in the biometric chip of their e-passport, and the information an airline holds, making redundant the need for manual identity checks

Although such systems might initially issue a ‘token’ in the form of an upgraded electronic version of present-day self-printed boarding passes, it is more likely that once travellers come to accept the full biometric system, it will simply be a case of passing almost seamlessly document-free to the gate.

The aviation industry and those responsible for security believe that once passengers see utility in being in better control of their own time, comprehensive biometric face recognition will be the future of arriving and departing from airports.

The relatively small number of companies developing the technology and its roll out point to a range of potential benefits. They say that for airports and airlines, biometrics will reduce staffing, save costs, reduce congestion, and improve security.

However, there are potential downsides.

As with the more general application of artificial intelligence, it will likely mean significant job losses. Biometric recognition systems also raise significant issues about who will have access to the data, whether it might be made available for other purposes, how securely will it be held, and what data laws will govern its retention. For example, there are issues emerging in the US about why its laws allow data to be gathered on foreigners departing the US, but not on US citizens. In contrast, the EU which requires all such information to be deleted once a passenger has flown.

Biometric facial recognition is opposed by those who value personal privacy. They raise concerns about how governments may use the huge data bases they accumulate. They want to know whether government agencies will use it for other security purposes, including identifying those who have overstayed or who may have irregularities in their migration documentation. They also warn that biometric information, if placed in the hands of commercial entities such as airlines or airports, might be sold on to big data accumulators for marketing and other retail purposes.

Despite this, most research suggests that anything that offers a less hindered approach to flying will be popular, and that most travellers have few concerns about the use of their biometric data.

Aruba and Nassau already have automated US passport control terminals for pre-clearance for US, Canadian and travellers using the US visa waiver system, making it likely that their airports will be the first where full biometric face recognition is adopted.

How Caribbean Governments and citizens respond has yet to be seen, but there will likely be concern expressed about the cost, and the implications for sovereignty and personal freedom. Nevertheless, what becomes the norm for travellers from and to North America and Europe usually transfers rapidly to the region; particularly if it relates to sustaining the tourism economy.


David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at

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30 November 2017


The views and opinions expressed in the Business of Tourism are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Caribbean Council.