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Biometric digital identity must be end-to-end for air travel

Digital identity systems based on biometrics are on the rise and nowhere more quickly than the air travel industry.

The promise is huge: by identifying travelers based on a unique facial scan, we can simplify the airport experience whilst removing the need for manual document checks.

This would finally deliver on a fully automated self-service experience for the passenger.

Progress towards this goal has of course been accelerated in the wake of COVID-19, as airports address new passenger demands for contactless experiences.

There’s no doubt that digital ID is the next big technology change for airports and their airline customers as the industry builds back better, but careful consideration of the rollout is key.

Gradually, biometric identity is being added as a new technology layer embedded in the systems that currently manage the passenger’s experience at the airport, mainly the airline Departure Control System (DCS).

The DCS knows if a passenger’s flight status has changed, if they are a frequent flyer, if they have outstanding bills to settle for ancillary services, and if all necessary travel health documents have been provided.

In the rush to access the benefits of biometrics as we rebuild travel, we need to ensure this passenger intelligence continues to be fully accessible at every touchpoint and is properly prioritized during biometric implementation.

This requires a commitment to integrating digital identity check-points at the airport with airline systems. Why? Because it is this passenger-centric approach that can deliver the tailored and personalized experiences that travelers will increasingly demand.

However, there are several scenarios where the end-to-end passenger experience can lack the level of attention it should receive during the move to biometric identity.

Here are a few examples:

Real-time passenger flight status

‘Should this passenger be permitted airside and to board?’ Perhaps the most fundamental question for any airline, ground handler or airport.

Unfortunately, some siloed approaches to biometrics rely on ‘static’ boarding pass data, extracted from the DCS in a batch 12 hours or more before departure, and then used to answer these questions at check-in, passenger verification and boarding. But a passenger’s flight status can change at any point before the plane takes off.

Anything short of real-time integration to the DCS risks a potential security incident, where a passenger could be incorrectly permitted airside and even to board an aircraft.

A related problem is an inability to keep passengers informed as they travel through the service points at the terminal. With a biometric system fully integrated to the DCS, as is the case for Amadeus solutions, the traveler receives prompts at every service point from check-in to boarding, reducing the need for agents to manage exceptions.

This eliminates scenarios such as arriving at the airport, approaching an automated biometric check-in kiosk and not being alerted that your flight has been delayed, or arriving at the boarding gate but not being informed about a last-minute seat change.

Passenger choice is key to adoption and achieving economies of scale from automation

It is sometimes suggested that because a passenger can enrol in a biometric program "off-airport" using a smartphone; that once at the airport, other service points (check-in kiosk, bag-drop or e-gates) can become ‘passive’ check-points to match the passenger’s face to their documents.

This can sound like an attractive opportunity for simplification, but it is worth examining some important points.

Amadeus believes passengers have the choice to enrol at any stage in the airport journey - before or after arriving at the airport.

This means that if biometric enrolment off-airport hasn’t been successful, passengers can still enter the biometric flow at the airport rather than becoming a costly ‘exception’.

Some passengers aren’t going to consider enrolling in advance. If a passenger arrives at the airport having checked-in online, they should be able to opt for biometrics at touchpoints within the airport, such as kiosk, bag drop, check-in counters or pre-security eGates.

Some passengers may simply prefer a ‘temporary enrolment’ at the airport that’s valid for a single trip, over an ongoing permanent digital identity for travel.

Failure to offer this choice means that efficiency gains from automation will need to be funnelLed back into handling exceptions at the terminal.

Think collectively

There are some examples of biometric solutions being deployed at airports for individual airlines. In certain circumstances, where the entire terminal is dedicated to a single airline, this approach can make sense.

However, for the vast majority of airports, it’s important the biometric system can be used by multiple airlines, avoiding the cost and duplication of running multiple solutions.

One size doesn’t fit all

High performance biometrics is not a copy-paste process for each service point.

Whereas biometric boarding at e-gates follows a single-filed passenger flow, a bag drop typically involves multiple people crowding around the camera region.

Both the biometric technology and associated passenger processing needs to be tailored to optimize the task at hand.

Each airline is unique, and there are variations in operating procedures and boarding processes for different airlines operating at the same airport.

This has subtle but important implications for how a biometric system is deployed, and necessitates customised user interfaces for each airline involved, as well as the agility to easily adapt processes based on the changing needs of different carriers.

Check-in and biometric enrolment should be a single process

Without close integration between biometric identity and the DCS, issues for passengers begin before they’ve even enrolled for biometrics.

Without this level of integration in the Common Use Self Service (CUSS) platform, passengers have to check-in as they always did at the kiosk and then re-enter their details again to enrol specifically for biometrics.

That’s why it is essential to integrate the biometric enrolment flow as part of the passenger check-in process.

Considering the industry is striving for the highest possible take-up rate for biometrics and that a key objective of such technology is to simplify life for passengers, it’s important biometrics doesn’t become a separate process that requires more hardware and additional terminal space.

The promise of digital identity is enormous for air travel but unless it is considered with the end-to-end traveler experience in mind, its full potential will not be realized.

As we take a big step forward in terms of how we identify passengers, we need to be careful we don’t take a step back in terms of how we’re able to understand and serve them.

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