The Changing Face of Aviation: Biometrics in Airport Operations

By Michael K. Pilgrim and Shawn M. Whalen, PE, RCDD, PSP, LEED AP

The use of advanced technology is becoming more prevalent throughout airports, from ticketing to security checkpoints. Security continues to be a priority for airports, but in the face of rising capacities, innovators are developing more ways to identify passengers and simplify their movement through the airport. In the last five years, the push to modernize airport operations has included the use of biometric technologies throughout the airport community, domestically and internationally.

Biometrics, or the use of a person’s unique physical characteristics for identification, has become something of a buzzword in the technology and security fields. The application of biometric technologies is changing the way airports and airlines identify travelers. This new technology has the potential to improve passenger throughput capacities during the ticketing, bag drop, boarding and security processes.

Aviation and Biometrics 

In the last decade, more organizations have begun viewing biometric technologies as a way to manage security with minimal intrusion. There are a variety of successful biometric technologies in use today: fingerprints, hand geometry, ear lobe identification, iris recognition, gait measurement and facial recognition, as well as other new and emerging technologies being successfully implemented by a multitude of end users. These technologies identify a person via video capture and pattern recognition without disrupting the overall experience.

Currently, biometrics are being utilized in airport security and immigration applications. Facial recognition has gained the most traction, with testing taking place in many locations around the world. It is projected that, in the future, visa-holding passengers who wish to board an international flight will have to agree to a facial geometry scan, which will then be linked to his or her passport for identification.

But the application of biometrics is expanding beyond security and immigration. Soon, biometrics will be used to create a single-user ID for each passenger. During ticketing, a traveler’s personal information will be matched with his or her biometric data and then to the image ID. This data also will be linked to the traveler’s baggage and matched with the airline database, linking passenger to carry-on baggage and identifying security threat risk level.

Upon exiting security, the data will be used to track the traveler’s progress to the boarding gate, where wayfinding technologies will present tenant-based services. At the gate, the image will be used to confirm the traveler’s reservation. This ability to uniquely identify each traveler and his or her movement will greatly enhance an airport’s ability to manage capacity, improve wayfinding, and reduce bottlenecks and queuing times.

Operations and Biometrics

The use of biometrics has a significant impact on data collection, storage and network requirements for operators. It necessitates major changes in the size and complexity of systems used to store and transmit biometric files and databases. This is because of the variance in biometric file sizes, depending on type, resolution and image compression formats.

Biometric technology employs algorithms to match a single biometric element with a database. This requires that each airport have access to large and often proprietary databases to distinguish one traveler from the next. Such access places increased demand on network speeds, availability and transmission capabilities. Growing storage needs will require each element of airport operations to expand its network capacity. In this situation, specialized personnel are needed to monitor the system.

The use of biometric technologies is a trend that is expected to continue, driving better, more efficient technologies, some of which are already in use in our everyday lives, as many people use their fingerprint to access a smartphone. Perhaps using that same fingerprint to go on a long-awaited vacation is closer than they think.

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