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Facial recognition systems save time spent in queues. (Photo: Reuters)
Facial recognition systems save time spent in queues. (Photo: Reuters)

Soon, forgetting a passport need not be your greatest travel fear

Biometrics and software match faces more accurately than the manual processes

Over the past few months, airports in Delhi, Bengaluru and Hyderabad have started testing biometrics-based self-boarding systems. Till recently, we had to carry a paper copy of a ticket to get inside the airport, put paper tags on our handbags, get a paper boarding pass stamped and fill a form to exit the country. Now, all of these processes are likely to disappear. The normal progression should have been the use of mobile phones as boarding passes for about a decade, but in India, we are preparing to make a big jump—heading straight into biometrics with the government’s DigiYatra project.

At airports around the country, the infrastructure is being put in place to allow people to walk into the airport and use their face to authenticate their journey. I participated in a facial biometrics trial at Hyderabad Airport recently. It took about two minutes to register for access, and then I went straight to the gate without a boarding pass. Bengaluru and Delhi airports have also started a trial of the end-to-end paperless biometrics programme.

Airports and airlines around the world are making big strides in the use of biometrics. In Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport, Delta Airlines uses facial recognition technology to board flights. The idea is to improve security and save time. At Dubai, Emirates has introduced a “biometric path" that uses facial and iris recognition for immigration, check-in and boarding for certain flights. Dubai airport is also conducting trials on a biometric “Smart Tunnel" with the aim to allow passengers to just walk through a section of the airport and complete immigration checks in seconds.

The speed of processing is far higher with biometrics, as compared to human effort. This helps airlines turn around flights quicker since the manual effort in scanning boarding passes is eliminated. For passengers too, travel becomes easier and more convenient since they no longer have to fumble to retrieve ID documents, tickets and boarding passes.

Another reason for airlines and airports to take to biometrics is security and accuracy. While technology does have its failings, biometrics and facial recognition software is able to match faces more accurately than the manual process.

With the use of facial images comes the natural concern about privacy and data protection. Airports/airlines in the western world don’t retain images, but take them on to match them with a database of pictures of all the passengers on the same flight. The database is provided by the immigration agencies of the country and is deleted within a fixed time after the flight departs.

In India, all the technologies and vendors are still in a trial phase, so we don’t have an immediate answer to the question of who is keeping your data. For instance, one needs to make a biometric ID for each of the airports using the process. This implies that the facial information will be stored on many different servers rather than on one common server. That increases the chances of getting private information of flyers by hacking the system. Another concern in India would be regarding the platform used to validate the information. Currently, for the trials, PAN, voter ID, driving licence, Aadhaar and a few other documents can be used to enrol in the system.

Ultimately, the ease of use of biometrics will make it an attractive proposition for passengers. The civil aviation ministry’s DigiYatra guidelines mention how the data needs to be handled but it is not clear how much data the intermediaries get to retain.

While things take shape, I hope the government also launches a trusted traveller programme of sorts, which, when validated with biometrics, would mean fewer security checks. Another item on the wish list is the option for Indian passengers to use their passports seeded with their Aadhaar biometrics to enter and exit the country instead of having a lengthy conversation at the immigration desk. Many countries have such systems in place such as the US’ Global Entry programme and the smart IDs for citizens and resident permit holders in the UAE and Singapore. This is on the DigiYatra roadmap, but first we need to get the domestic workflow right before having international flights simplified for us.

Elevate Your Travel is a column for the business travellers by a business traveller.Ajay Awtaney is founder and editor of Livefromalounge.com, an Indian aviation website.

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