Biometrics: The next-generation of personalised air travel

Fifty years ago, airline travel was a luxurious experience – elegant, very personal, almost magical. It was also a rarity for most people. In 1964, about 82 million passengers traveled on scheduled commercial flights in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

How things have changed. In 2014 airlines in the U.S. flew nearly 850 million passengers – and magical is not the word most of them would use to describe the experience. Combine that passenger volume with pressure on costs, and it’s no surprise that airlines just can’t provide personalised service except to a small number of very active frequent fliers.

But the magic could return for the majority of passengers over the next few years, thanks to the rapid advance of biometric technology. By using unique physical or behavioral characteristics to confirm a person’s identity, from iris or facial recognition to voiceprints, airlines will be able to recreate that highly personalised and streamlined air travel experience of the past, and for millions of customers.

In fact, biometric technology has the potential to enhance nearly every aspect of the experience, from the time passengers arrive at the airport through baggage check, lounge access, boarding, in-flight services – even managing immigration or customs requirements while passengers are still on the plane!

Once the technology rolls out at airports, the entire process would be nearly effortless for the traveler. Passengers who wanted to take advantage of the enhanced experience would first enroll with their airline and securely store their biometric information. This could be done at an airport lounge via mobile devices carried by airline employees, or by passengers directly from a seatback screen while in flight. Once enrolled, a passenger would then be able to be recognised at various areas of the airport to gain access, speed up services and enjoy personalised attention.

For example, an enrolled passenger could walk up to a self-service bag drop area, use one of the automated stations to confirm his or her identity via iris recognition, and then simply have the bags accepted and dispatched to the gate. The system would instantly link the passenger’s identity to a reservation, so there would be no need to produce a photo ID or show a boarding pass. Everything would move faster, and the system would eliminate the need to juggle a mobile device or to carry a paper boarding pass that can easily be lost.

Similar technology could be installed at the entrance to the airline’s lounge and allow passengers to identify themselves as they entered. The system would have all the necessary information about each passenger’s preferences, reservation and perks, and direct each to the appropriate area of the lounge. Staff would be able to greet the passenger by name and provide the right services, again with no need to show a boarding pass or membership card.

The convenience extends to service at the gate, one of the more frustrating bottlenecks for travelers. As passengers walk up to the jetway door, they would be invited to board at the appropriate time for their status or class of fare. This streamlined boarding process would be faster and more pleasant for passengers, and free gate staff to devote time to processing changes or handling other immediate passenger issues. As the passenger boards the plane, the system would let flight attendants greet a person by name, direct each person to their assigned seat, and provide flight attendants with immediate information about high-status passengers. The system can generate a real-time head count and seat chart for flight attendants and gate staff.

Biometrics also will enhance the on-board experience in ways not possible today.

A camera in the seatback display would allow the passenger to provide the positive identification needed to activate a range of personalised services. For instance, passengers could look at a real-time seating chart and decide to change seats or even upgrade their trip – and automatically make the change, pay any fees, and simply move to their new seat. The system would personalise entertainment choices, even making it possible to stop watching a programme on one flight, and resume it on the next one. Food and beverage preferences would be similarly personalised, including simple seatback ordering with automatic payment.

It would even be possible for international passengers to complete all their immigration and customs processing while still on the plane, greatly reducing delays at the destination – and even allowing them to arrange ground transportation.

What makes this personalised curb-to-curb service possible is advanced biometric technology that is highly accurate, intuitive and unobtrusive. People at airports generally prefer touchless technology, so the typical installation would involve systems capable of recognising faces or irises at a distance. These would be embedded in the relevant display for each airport function, so that passengers could identify themselves at the same time they are viewing the screen for the information they need. The result is a much more streamlined experience at every point in the journey.

It will take some time and coordination for this biometric personalisation to become reality. Some of these systems can be implemented by individual airlines, while others will require partnership with government agencies (such as transportation security, or customs and immigration). But the technology is already here and being used by some forward-thinking airlines and airports. In the next few years, it will become more widespread. As it does, this technology of the future will ensure passengers can enjoy that magical air travel experience of the past.

Alastair Partington is VP of Identity Programs for Tascent, Inc