Delta implemented a “curb-to-gate” facial recognition system for international travelers at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in December, and the airline says it will bring the program to Detroit Metropolitan Airport this year. Other airlines, including JetBlue, British Airways and Lufthansa, are running biometric pilot programs of their own.
"I think what will happen is that you'll see a gradual adoption of these sorts of technologies by bigger airports over the next three to five years," said Sean Farrell, director of self-service for SITA, a Swiss firm that last year implemented the facial-recognition system at Orlando International Airport in Florida.
"It's going to grow fast," Ahmed Abdelghany, a professor of operations management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, said of biometric screening. "The incentives are there for the airlines."
Those incentives include reduced staffing and shorter boarding times — which, of course, is a boon not just for airlines but also for travelers who like the idea of checking in and boarding flights without having to show a boarding pass or ID.
Darren Murph, a strategist for travel website The Points Guy, reviewed Delta's curb-to-gate program when it debuted last year — and gave it high marks. "Though the process was new, everything operated smoothly, and it certainly made the entire experience far more frictionless," he said.
“It’s another step toward creating a comprehensive tracking system," said Jay Stanley, a policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington. "That’s our ultimate fear, that we turn into a society where we are tracked in that way.”
Air travelers who have used some form of a biometric system to enter and exit a country worldwide gave it a satisfaction rating of 8.36 out of 10, according to a report issued in February 2019 by SITA and the industry publication Air Transport World.
Few passengers seem to object to Delta’s biometric screening system in Atlanta: Of the nearly 25,000 customers who travel through the international terminal each week, Delta says less than 2 percent opt out of facial scans — choosing to rely on regular passports and boarding passes instead.
With the computer algorithms used for biometric security systems getting more and more accurate, Abdelghany said convenience would ultimately trump any privacy concerns. "In the end, whatever technology makes your life easy wins," he said.
Farrell said the expansion of facial recognition for domestic travel might start with passengers who have passports or who have enrolled in the TSA PreCheck program, which gives passengers access to expedited security screening for an $85 fee every five years. PreCheck passengers are required to have their pictures taken as part of the application process.
For travelers who don’t want to wait for the arrival of airline-offered biometric boarding, third-party options are available for some aspects of the air travel experience.
The New York-based firm Clear lets travelers breeze through security at 27 airports using fingerprints and facial recognition — providing they’re willing to pay $15 a month for the convenience. Clear has also partnered with Delta to grant passengers access to airport lounges using fingerprint scans.