Biometrics takes flight
Biometrics takes flight

Feb 1, 2001 12:00 PM

How technology protects and enhances the lives of everyday people in the global airport, airline and travel industries

The depth and breadth with which biometric processes have penetrated the mainstream is nowhere more visible than in the global airport, airline, and travel industries. In fact, air travel is one of the only public applications where a variety of biometric technologies have been deployed on a worldwide scale.

Over the past few years, a myriad of pilot projects and installations of various biometric-based identification systems have been dedicated to achieving one goal: Make airline travel and immigration more convenient, efficient and secure for all

Passengers want hassle-free travel; airlines want to offer better service to their customers; airports want better and more efficient use of their facilities; customs and immigration want improved controls and more efficient use of their resources; and governments want an efficient transport system and protection of the public. Solution? Biometrics.

Biometric technologies electronically identify a person based on physical or behavioral characteristics, such as the pattern in the iris, a fingerprint, or even vocal patterns. Biometric technologies currently being used in airports and by airlines around the world include facial recognition, fingerprinting, hand geometry, iris recognition and signatures. Here are some of the ways these security- and convenience-enhancing systems are being used:
Facial Recognition

This biometric process identifies individuals by the patterns and structure of the face, using proprietary software algorithms and digital camera technology.

In one airport-based application, three companies collaborated to develop self-ticketing kiosks to expedite passenger check-in and boarding for commercial airlines and cruise lines. This system provides reliable passenger-baggage reconciliation and improves passenger servicing. This system was unveiled to the industry at the Passenger Terminal Expo in Cannes, France, last March.

Facial recognition is also being integrated into passport and travel document control stations to analyze these media for forgery and tampering. The process allows for passport photos to be compared against a designated watch list of known criminals or terrorists. Pilot projects with several foreign governments are currently under way.

The FAA is testing facial recognition in conjunction with a major U.S. airline to develop an automated boarding system for frequent travelers. The proposal is to enroll the airline's frequent flyers into a private database so that in lieu of boarding passes, a camera at the gate will automatically "capture" faces of people boarding and match those images against the facial template files in the database.
Fingerprint Minutiae

Today's commercial fingerprinting techniques are electronic in nature, no longer requiring the ink and paper method still featured in many police dramas. The pattern of a fingerprint is captured by a reader and analyzed to identify an enrolled person in seconds.

Electronic fingerprint imaging methods have been effective in securing access to restricted areas of airports and facilitating quick and accurate identification of travelers visiting foreign countries. Such an electronic fingerprinting system is being used to secure entry and delivery into the universal air cargo area at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. Combined with a smart card that also holds manifest information, the fingerprint system identifies drivers and their corresponding trucks and cargo.

Additionally, Chicago's O'Hare's U.S. Customs employees use a combined smart card and fingerprint identification system to secure access into restricted areas of the airport.

One U.S. company has successfully integrated fingerprint authentication with smart cards to help streamline the ticketing process, hasten check-in and boarding, and increase security. Two U.S. airlines are studying the use of fingerprint technology in conjunction with smart cards, and a third U.S. airline is evaluating it for identification of pilots and crew members.
Hand Geometry

These biometric systems recognize people by the shape and mass of the human hand. Hand readers compare the three-dimensional shape of the hand and take only seconds to verify a person's identity.

The nation's fifth largest airport, San Francisco International Airport, has been using hand geometry-based systems to authenticate airport employees for almost 10 years. The combination card and biometric readers are located at all points of entry to the airport operations area, including elevators that lead to secure areas of the terminal buildings. United Airlines uses hand geometry and card readers at its entrance into the airport operations area, as well as at the entrance to its pre-flight briefing building.

Another application of hand geometry technology is in use at seven major airports by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. The U.S. program, called INSPASS, shaves time off of the immigration clearance process. Travelers who have been enrolled in INSPASS and were issued an INSPASS card can clear immigration in 20-40 seconds. The INSPASS program, which is currently free of charge and available to all U.S. citizens and to most citizens of Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Western Europe, is being used at John F. Kennedy International Airport, Newark International Airport; San Francisco International Airport; Los Angeles International Airport; and Miami International Airport. INS has also installed systems at pre-flight clearance facilities in Canada at Vancouver International Airport and Toronto International Airport.

Hawaiian Airlines has implemented a hand geometry-based system to read the hands of its 2,000 full and part-time employees as they "clock" into work everyday. With an ID number instead of a badge, employees "clock" in and out of work by placing their hand in the reader, making it a convenient, effective, money- and time-saving process.
Iris Recognition

This biometric identification process works by analyzing the unique and personally distinct patterns of the iris using sophisticated software algorithms and a camera.

The first U.S. installation of iris recognition for airport security was at the Charlotte/Douglas International Airport. This program is expected to revolutionize airport and airline employee identification and provide substantially higher security. The first phase of the system included an access control station for U.S. Airways pilots and flight attendants, and a separate station for airport employees and other airline personnel.

The Frankfurt Airport in Germany was the first European airport to introduce an iris recognition-based identification system to control airport and airline employee access to restricted areas and enhance security operations. This alternative eases the cumbersome paper- and token-based identification processes and ensures security and convenience for airlines and employees.

The second phase of this project includes enrolling and identifying passengers at both Charlotte and Frankfurt. This phase began on July 17, 2000. Once passengers enroll, they will be able to step in front of a terminal kiosk, be identified, and be issued a boarding pass, avoiding the long traditional check-in process.

The Canadian Airports Council sought a means to automate border crossing while providing positive identification of visitors and citizens. The Canadian-sponsored EPPS project (Expedited Passenger Processing System) combines two biometrics with an optical memory card to automate border crossing for frequent travelers. Iris recognition was selected as the primary biometric for day-to-day identifications and use within the EPPS kiosks. In the past, such immigration activities relied on fingerprint identification. In keeping with that tradition fingerprints will also be collected, but used only as a secondary identification method.

A Pacific Rim country is also considering implementing a biometric-based automated border crossing system, and is working with its national airline and other allied countries regarding reciprocity and compatibility of such a system across other borders.

Additionally, an airport in Scandinavia is evaluating an iris recognition-based identification system for increasing automation, efficiency, convenience, and security for travelers and airport/airline employees.
Signature Dynamics

Signature dynamics authenticate a person through his/her written signature, which is captured using a "smart" pen. The device is used on paper and secures electronic transactions.

A biometric vendor based in The Netherlands is currently preparing to target the airline industry to implement a signature verification system to help reduce time spent at ticket counters. This initiative will allow airlines to enhance their customer service for frequent travelers by providing members with a "smart" pen and program membership card. With this solution, airline customers will have access to on-line reservation systems, allowing them to securely reserve tickets, as well as view their personal information and make changes to reservations. Specially equipped counters will also be available throughout the terminal for added convenience and efficiency.
Information for this article was compiled by the International Biometric Industry Association (IBIA), a trade association founded in September 1998 in Washington, D.C., to advance, advocate, defend and support the collective international interests of the biometric industry. IBIA is governed by and for biometric developers, manufacturers and integrators, and is impartially dedicated to serving all biometric technologies in all applications. For more information, contact Rebecca Dornbusch, Director of Governmental Relations for IBIA, 202-783-7272 or visit

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