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4 Things Travellers Need to Know About Airport Biometrics

Even the most avid travellers often remark that they love exploring new destinations, but dislike the process that’s necessary to reach them. Sam, the editor here, is the perfect example of this. If you ask her to comment about the downsides of her airport experiences, she’ll bring up the lines associated with the security or immigration checkpoints. Or, perhaps she’ll talk about how she scrambles to find her passport in her luggage before getting on a plane. She’ll likely also moan about flight delays but that is a topic for another blog post! 

Thanks to airport biometrics, hassles like these are already less problematic. Here are some things people should know about airport biometrics:

No Need to Bring Anything Special With You to Travel

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Biometrics technology analyses part of a person’s body for access control. The most common kinds are iris scans, facial recognition and fingerprint scanning. As such, travellers do not need to remember to pack anything extra beyond what they normally would if travelling through an airport that uses biometrics. 

Airport Biometrics Can Come Into Play During Entry, Exit or Both

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One of the primary goals of airport biometrics from a passenger convenience side of things is to streamline how they travel. Typically, using biometrics means that travellers don’t encounter as many human officials as they enter or leave a country, board a plane or do other things related to airport security. For example, some South African airports upgraded to an electronic gate system whereby passengers scan their passports and get fingerprint checks without waiting for immigration officers to look at their documents. Similar technology exists at Ireland’s Dublin Airport, but only for people with European passports. When airports use facial scanning technology, people may encounter it at several familiar places around the airport. They may see scanners at the bag drop desk, airline departure gates and security portals, for example. 

Travel Permitted Without Showing Boarding Passes or Passports

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One of the things that cause frustration as people prepare to board planes is the length of the lines that quickly build up when individuals move through and show gate agents their boarding passes and passports. If only one airline representative has to verify hundreds of passengers, travellers may endure long wait times. Such delays are exceptionally problematic if people need to catch connecting flights and don’t have much time to spare. But, Japan’s Narita International Airport became the first location in the country to announce plans to use facial recognition so that passengers don’t need to produce documents before boarding. It’s not even necessary to pause as they pass through the face scanners. Travellers can expect that option in the spring of 2020. Two Japanese airlines will be the first to use it, with the technology rolled out more extensively later. 

Similarly, Norwegian Airlines recently joined nine other airline brands using facial scanning at Los Angeles International Airport. The biometric technology verifies passenger identities within a few seconds without the need to show passports or boarding paperwork. Then, an electronic gate opens to let them board the plane. In what’s arguably one of the most inventive facial scanning techniques yet, passengers at an airport in Dubai can bypass traditional security clearance measures and instead walk through a tunnel that shows them images of a virtual aquarium. When people look at the fish swimming around them, cameras capture pictures of their faces. 

Airport Biometrics Technology Is Still in the Early Stages

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Many of the airports implementing biometrics technology are doing it in trial phases. So, if a location introduces biometrics technology, that does not necessarily indicate it’ll have it permanently. In Australia’s Perth Airport, electronic gates for biometrics got installed several months ago but are not used yet. Additionally, at Canberra Airport, airport officials decided to pause a planned trial of eight e-gates there. Russia and India are among other places around the world that are starting to test e-gates. However, some people in India, as well as elsewhere, raise concerns that biometrics technology at airports violates privacy and data sharing laws. Procedures usually exist that allow people to decline facial scanning or other kinds of biometrics in favour of traditional options. However, they’re often not mentioned during the boarding process. When one U.S. traveler encountered facial scanning portals in an airport on her way to Southeast Asia, she didn’t want to use them. 

She reported that the airline representative who alerted passengers about the use of the scanners did not mention alternative methods. The woman took it upon herself to get out of the boarding line and find out about other choices. But, many passengers — even those wary of privacy issues — may not be so proactive. Certainly, though, part of using airport biometrics successfully means taking privacy into account. 

Expect Biometrics Technology to Change the Future of Travel

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Even though the coverage here focused on airport travel, officials use biometrics in other ways, such as to check the identity of cruise passengers and people who cross some U.S.-Mexico border points on foot. You can expect that as the technology gets even more advanced and a growing number of locations use it, the likelihood will go up that you’ll encounter biometrics during your excursions. 

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