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Everyone hates queuing at the airport. But now a combination of digital tokens, kiosks and facial authentication is promising to slash waiting times…

After two miserable years, air travel is back. At their 2019 peak, global passenger numbers hit 4.5 billion. A year later, they fell to 1.8 billion. Now, with almost all restrictions removed, the IATA (International Air Transport Association) expects passenger numbers to reach 4.0 billion in 2024

It seems that people are excited to get back to the airport. They may be less excited about the queues. 

In the immediate aftermath of COVID, airport wait times grew to unprecedented levels. This was thanks to a combination of staff shortages, flight cancellations and – of course – vaccine passport checks. In fact, when the US re-opened for non-essential travel in November 2021 the CEO of Delta Airlines warned of eight-hour queues.

Eighteen months later, the situation has improved. However, the reality is that most passengers accept long airport wait times as a regrettable fact of life. 

Should they? Perhaps not.

After all, in most other areas of life, technology is removing the friction from everyday processes.

Consider financial services. A few clicks on an app has replaced a time-consuming trip to the branch, while a contactless tap has supplanted chequebook and pen.

So can technology do the same for the airport check-in and security experience? Actually, it already has. 

In June 2022, American Airlines launched its Mobile ID product. It lets any passenger breeze through the airport merely by presenting his or her face at various automated checkpoints in the airport.

Here’s how it works:
•    The passenger downloads the Airside Digital Identity app
•    She takes a selfie
•    She scans her driver’s license or passport with the app
•    The app verifies that the user is ‘real’ and that the identity information matches the face
•    The app then generates a unique American Airlines Mobile ID and stores it on the phone. This ID is linked to the customer’s face
•    As she goes through security, the passenger presents the QR code on the phone and then looks into a camera at various checkpoints to verify her identity. The kiosk processes her live image, verifying it against a database of enrolled passengers. She is verified in less than five seconds.

The system was launched at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), and American Airlines is now planning many more rollouts. Similar trials are taking place in many other countries.

Mobile ID was developed in partnership with Thales’ Fly to Gate solution. It is based on a combination of key technological innovations.

The first is biometric self-authentication
Biometrics offer the best form of authentication – and the face is one of the most practical biometrics. Everyone has a unique face, and looking at a camera is an easy-to-understand process. The main challenge is ensuring that the face is ‘live’ (and present at the point of capture), not a fake or a spoof, and that it matches the one on the accompanying document. New liveness detection processes have solved this problem.

The second key innovation is online ID verification. This tech uses machine learning algorithms to ‘read’ a paper document and then compare it against a remote database to authenticate it accurately. 

The next breakthrough is the mobile wallet. The mobile wallet provides a secure, interoperable and standards-based environment for encrypted credentials within a phone. In other words, it is the most convenient and safe place for travelers to store their verified ID. As virtually all travelers have a smartphone, it is quite handy to have their credentials securely saved in their mobile wallets. 

This leads to the fourth key tech innovation: the digital token. When the passenger registers, she is issued a unique and temporary ID token that represents her. The token is stored inside a secure enclave in the phone and is useless to anyone that intercepts it. And for greater data privacy, the token is erased once the flight has taken off. This improves security and trust. 

Needless to say, airports can deploy biometric solutions such as Fly to Gate at every bottleneck in the terminal: check-in, baggage drop, security and boarding. Thales estimates that its process can reduce processing times by 70 percent, and boarding times by 30 percent.

But ultimately the benefits extend beyond wait times. Self-service systems reduce pressure on airport staff and give a sense of autonomy back to passengers. This reduces stress and generally makes the airport experience better. Quicker processing also frees travelers up to spend more time (and money) in the food, drink and retail outlets that generate more than half of airport revenues. 

The last few years have been tough for the air travel business. But now that journeys are returning to peak levels, it has the chance to re-invent the airport experience for travelers. Biometrics, mobile wallets and digital tokens can help them do this. All the passengers need to do is show their faces.

Five steps for creating, storing and using a digital ID 
•    The traveler uses an app to generate a unique Digital Travel Credential, which is stored in the phone’s digital wallet
•    At check-in, the traveler is asked to share her biometrics with the airport and airline
•    If she agrees, her digital credential is combined with her check-in info to create a single ID token. This token identifies her at various touchpoints. 
•    At the end of the journey the single ID token, including all personal data, is deleted from the airport system. 
•    However, their traveler’s own digital credential remains safely stored in the digital wallet, ready for the next trip


Check out our infographic below, which takes you through the contactless airport or download it as a pdf here to see what the biometric pathway looks like.


Related content:

Understanding biometrics

Facial recognition and identity