Biometrics and its value for air travel

A deeper look at the impact of biometrics on the region’s booming air travel market
Sandra Valero, business development manager for Government Programs in the Middle East at Gemalto.
Sandra Valero, business development manager for Government Programs in the Middle East at Gemalto.

Over recent years, the Middle East has benefited from strong and sustained growth in air passenger numbers, a trend that is set to continue for at least the next two decades, according to IATA (International Air Transport Association).

For a wide range of stakeholders across the Middle East, these are welcoming news. But rising traveller numbers will pose some significant infrastructure challenges: these include the need to ensure that the passenger experience is not compromised by frustrating delays at border control and other airport pinch points.

At the same time, any efforts to ease these processes must be combined with rigorous security against serious threats such as terrorism and illegal immigration.

In attempting to meet these apparently conflicting goals, many Middle Eastern airports – and border control agencies – have already identified biometrics as a powerful asset. However, there remains vast potential to ensure that the millions of passengers that will be heading for the region over the next twenty years enjoy the best possible start and finish to their journeys.

In particular, airport operators now have the opportunity to create fully integrated ‘biometric identity systems’, whisking travellers seamlessly from initial check-in right through to boarding.

For passengers, there is no doubt that the priority is shorter queues and a pleasant end-to-end travel experience. In these lines, self-service is a dominant theme, with two-thirds of airports planning major IT projects in this area.

For border control agencies, technologies such as a fingerprint or facial and iris scans can provide irrefutable evidence of true identity, and help confirm the authenticity of travel documentation. Just as important, such processes are being readily recognised and adopted by end users as an effortless means of authentication.

Back in 2013, the iPhone 5s kick-started the use of fingerprint scans as a means of unlocking a smartphone. Samsung launched their new device back in April 2017, the S8, equipped to identify users with an Iris camera, and facial recognition. The new iPhone X now looks set to do the same for facial recognition.

The Middle-East leads in multiple technologies adoptions, for example, ePassports (biometric passports) and eID’s (electronic identity cards) are fast becoming standard across the region.

By embedding personal and biometric data in a secure electronic chip within the travel document, these have in turn facilitated growing deployment of second generation, Automated Border Control (ABC) gates at airports. Significantly, these allow travellers to avoid the queues at border control simply by scanning their own passport or eID, along with their fingerprint or face.

As well as offering more travellers the option of stress-free, self-service processing, the increasing use of e-Gates enables border control authorities to target their human resources much more efficiently and effectively.    

Established as a leader in this field, Gemalto’s extensive track record includes the recent installation of 87 ‘smart gates’ at Paris airports.

But the advantages of this self-service, biometric-based model can now be extended much further. Working in conjunction with IER, Gemalto has launched Fly to Gate, an innovative concept that creates a unique biometric identity for travellers.

This is achieved by allowing passengers to create a temporary biometric ID ‘token’ on a mobile phone, which can then be used to verify their identity at self-service terminals: not just at border control, but also check-in, baggage drop and boarding gates.

The potential economic benefits of such an approach are far-reaching. With passengers wasting less time in queues, the opportunities for them to spend their time in airport shops and restaurants are maximised.

Faster passenger processing also helps airlines run to schedule, reducing the risk of financial penalties and dissatisfied travellers. The impact is also felt beyond the air industry. Dubai’s prosperity is clearly highly dependent on overseas visitors, and for countries right across the region, business travellers and tourists alike are now having a profound impact on national GDP.

IATA’s latest predictions paint a positive picture for the Middle East; however, given the economic dividends, competition between countries and airports for passenger business will only intensify.  Delivering the right customer experience is therefore likely to prove critical for future success.

In this respect, the good news for all concerned is that biometric-based solutions have moved swiftly from the realms of concept to reality, and now offer stakeholders all the tools they need to finally make trade-offs between convenience and security a thing of the past.

By Sandra Valero, Business Development Manager for Government Programs in the Middle East at Gemalto.

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