Facing the Future: New Biometric Technology Programs Being Tested Nationwide

By Sandra Arnoult

Sweeping changes may come over the next four years as the U.S. Customs and Border Protection rolls out the installation of new biometric technology in U.S. airports based on facial recognition. Over the past year, a number of airports have kicked off pilot programs to test the new technology with a designated, limited number of flights and destinations.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) first established biometric screening procedures based on digital fingerprints for certain non-U.S. citizens in 2004, after Congress required the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to develop a biometric entry/exit system. The goal was to secure U.S. borders and verify travelers’ identities. In 2013, when Congress transferred the entry/exit policy and operations to CBP, the border security initiatives continued.

One of the most recent technologies relates to biometrics – metrics related to human characteristics. In this case, it is facial-recognition technology and it is being used to help verify travelers’ identities and match them to the documents they present.

Using a flight manifest, CBP develops a flight-specific photo gallery using photos from the passenger that were provided to the airline.

The live photo is compared to the document photo to ensure it matches the original documents. If the photo captured at boarding confirms the passenger as a U.S. citizen, it’s not used for biometric exit purposes and is discarded briefly afterward.

It’s critical that any process does not slow down or impede the flow of passengers or limit the number of flights, said Dan Tanciar, deputy executive for entry/exit transportation at CBP. The economic impact of the process on the airlines and the airport has to be taken into account in any process, he added.

Tanciar pointed out that the 2016 appropriation for DHS included up to $1 billion over a 10-year period to implement a biometric entry and exit program. The cost to implement the program “remains a concern among stakeholders” and issues of policy and training still need to be resolved.

Tanciar acknowledged, “CBP is committed to continue to work with stakeholders to resolve the details associated with implementation.”

U.S. citizens who balk at the idea of having a photo taken can opt for a physical inspection of their documents, which will take more time but would address their concerns about privacy, he said.

Early indications from airports and officials at CBP and the DHS are that programs, which are limited thus far, may be an important tool in establishing the validity of the technology.

“Matt Cornelius, ACI-NA Vice President of Air Policy, agrees. “Over the last year, ACI-NA has been working closely with CBP, Airlines for America, IATA and the individual airlines to ensure that the program is not only effective but does not disrupt airport operations.”

But in late December, two U.S. Senators raised a red flag, asking DHS to stop expanding the program and provide Congress with its explicit statutory authority to use and expand it.

“We ask that DHS address accuracy concerns and potential flaws before broadening the practice,” wrote U.S. Senators Ed Markey (D-Mass) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) in a letter to DHS on Dec.

21, 2017. They also expressed concerns about whether the data collection will “unduly burden” travelers of certain races or genders.

In addition, they said, “While Congress has repeatedly voted to authorize biometric entry/exit scanning of foreign nationals, it has never authorized biometric exit scanning

for U.S. citizens. In fact, Congress has pointedly neglected to authorize DHS to use the program on U.S. citizens for any purpose.”

Tanciar is confident that their concerns will be adequately addressed because of the way the system is being developed and used.


Privacy is a concern for passengers, said Guido Peetermans, head of IATA Passenger Security. Any system should be designed to ensure that access to passenger data is on a “need to know” and “authorized basis.”

“A privacy impact analysis, sound quality assurance and compliance monitoring need to be in place to maintain the traveling public’s trust in such a system,” Peetermans said.

“The biggest challenge in every implementation project we have seen is to establish trust and collaboration between the various industry and government stakeholders, break the silos, and redesign the process with the passenger in the center.”

Tanciar said that he believes CBP is already in line with privacy protections.

“I think we have done an honest-to-goodness good faith effort to bake all of this into the process.”


Pilot programs at select U.S. airports have been in effect for nearly a year and, thus far, the passenger response has been positive, say a number of airports officials.

“Up to this point, things are progressing very well,” said Dan Agostino, assistant director of operations at Miami International Airport. “On the entry side, we are processing two international flights per day with hopes to increase to three flights per day.”

He said he sees it as a “viable program” and that very few people have opted out of the facial ID. They are considering testing the technology for check-in at common use kiosks.

“I think the major hurdle, other than privacy, is to have both CBP and TSA aligned as to the use of this technology,” Agostino said.

“Customer response has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Joanna Geraghty, JetBlue executive vice president, customer experience. “More than 90% of customers have opted-in to self-board. Self-boarding also saves time for our crewmembers who no longer have to do manual passport inspections during the boarding process.”

JetBlue teamed with SITA to pilot a biometric boarding process at Boston Logan International Airport in June 2017. SITA provides passenger processing technology to more than 165 airlines that serve 100 million passengers each year. It also provides border management technology to more than 40 governments across the Americas, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

“Our trial was the first effort between an airline and CBP to use biometrics and facial recognition technology in the boarding process,” Geraghty explained. “We launched with our Boston to Aruba flights to test this among a vacation leisure market and customers who travel frequently and are technology-savvy.” The process was subsequently extended to flights from Boston to Santiago, Dominican Republic, which are primarily leisure or family trips.

She said JetBlue continues to review the program and will work with CBP for a “long term biometric roadmap.”

Sean Farrell, SITA portfolio director, strategy and partnerships, demonstrates how a technology provider can bring together all stake holders – airlines, airports and government agencies – to improve identity checks and improve processing times.

“We continue to work with other U.S. airlines and airports to see how we can introduce this technology at other passenger touch points,” said Farrell. “Looking more globally, over the past 18 months we have worked tirelessly to develop our end-to-end suite of self-service solutions for passengers –we call it Smart Path™. [It] allows passengers to move through the airport and board the aircraft by presenting a single digital token, created by capturing a passenger’s biometric details at the first step in the journey.”

British Airways has partnered with Los Angeles International Airport to run test trials on a self-service biometric boarding gate from Vision-Box. The passenger approaches the gate where a camera snaps a photo.

When the photo is verified against the photo taken as part of the process, the gate automatically opens and the passenger moves through eliminating the need to supply boarding documents or a passport.

“People are very excited about using this new technology,” said Justin Erbacci, chief innovation and technology officer for Los Angeles World Airports. “They are eager to go through the gates. It’s optional. No one has to go through. If someone feels it is obtrusive, they can go through the traditional boarding process.”

Bringing in the equipment was a bit of a hurdle, he said. “We had to bring the gates themselves [because] automated boarding lanes are new to the airport – getting the infrastructure in place and getting airlines to use it.”

The gates are stationed in the international terminal and can be moved, he said. “Other airlines are starting to use the automated boarding gates. We are in the process of adjusting their system. We believe it makes sense to board planes much faster than the traditional method of boarding.”

The technology also has to be integrated with existing common use equipment in the international terminals, he said.

Erbacci said he believes facial recognition is the direction they are heading, rather than voice, fingerprint or iris recognition. “We aren’t looking at that right now. Functionality now involves the use of the face.”

Farrell agreed. “We expect that face will dominate going forward – particularly at airports, where the major focus will be to continue to leverage the face data in ePassports to improve the passenger experience and security.” Other modalities – such as iris or fingerprints may have advantages, but they also have drawbacks such as privacy concerns, the cost of fingerprint technology and the lack of an existing database, he said.

“We believe biometrics are the future of passenger processing,” said Erbacci. “For us, it’s very important to be part of this.” Thus far the initial cost of the gates at LAX are not covered by CBP but through different airport resources, said Erbacci.

“We would recommend this to other airports and airlines,” said JetBlue’s Geraghty. “Our goal is for a personal, helpful and simple experience. Implementing biometrics has allowed us to innovate the airport travel experience and reduce friction points for our customer by making the boarding process simpler.”