Never a better time to explore biometrics

Never a better time to explore biometrics

“There’s never been a better time to explore and trial new biometric self-service and identity management solutions to create the seamless passenger journey,” says Sherry Stein, Senior Manager of Projects & Innovation, SITA Lab.

With passenger volumes set to nearly double by 2036 to over 7.8 billion air travelers a year, airport operators and airlines must continue to invest in self-service solutions that will deliver the seamless passenger journey.

At the same time, they need to be able to scale infrastructure and operations, and all without compromising security.

The good news is that for self-service security and border management, a great leap forward is the ability for traveler identity verification to be done using biometric technology. This process combines existing airport infrastructure, camera systems and related technology with sophisticated algorithms. These algorithms programmatically perform the required process of matching the person (face) to the document (photo) and then making the recommendation to grant approval to proceed based upon a ‘match’.

2018 Air Transport IT Insights

Airlines want more automation of passenger ID management and they’re increasingly investing in, and piloting, biometric solutions.

Air Transport IT Insights, 2018

Airlines and airports are increasingly investing in, and piloting, biometric solutions, according to SITA’s newly released ‘2018 Air Transport IT Insights’, which shows the industry focusing on technologies that offer strategic and operational benefits. Its survey of Airline IT Trends finds that airlines are focused on achieving more automation of passenger identity management, with biometrics high on the agenda.

Automation and self-service are seen as the key technologies that will help support the expected growth in passenger traffic volumes without requiring capital intense airport improvement projects.

Now on the radar of airlines, is the installation of self-boarding gates equipped with camera systems and facial recognition technology. This supports paper travel via the use of biometrics in lieu of manual processes for identity verification (passport and boarding pass checks).

Some 63% of airlines have implementations today or plan to do so by 2021, according to SITA’s Insights research. The trend is echoed in its survey of Airport IT Trends, which highlights that 77% of airports have set their sights on biometric identity management solutions.

Many airports are coupling biometrics solutions with the implementation of self-boarding gates: 59% of airports have implementations and/or plans by 2021. Thanks to the industry’s focus on the seamless journey, these solutions could become commonplace by the end of 2021, according to industry research and survey results.

Investment priorities: biometric identity management solutions

% of airlines and airports using or planning self-boarding gates using biometric and travel documents by 2021

This translates to an improved, simplified process for travelers. No longer will they be required to continuously re-prove their identity through the presentation of documents to an agent for manual verification. The process that once took minutes and time spent fumbling through bags to find the right paperwork is now reduced to mere seconds: step up to the camera, wait for the system to ‘recognize’ you, and off you go.

Over three-quarters of airports have set their sights on biometric ID management solutions, which include self-boarding gates using biometrics and ID documents.

Air Transport IT Insights, 2018


Exploring solutions

This is a highly encouraging trend. Given the challenges faced by air travel, there’s never been a better time to explore and trial new biometric solutions. The appeal of efficiencies and a simplified process is seen as an avenue to support industry growth and to create meaningful differentiation for an improved customer experience.

Of course, in the race to implement new, innovative self-service solutions, safety and security cannot be compromised.  

The many initiatives and trials underway across multiple industries and geographies recognize this. They include the evaluation of different biometric modalities (iris, fingerprint, facial recognition, odor and DNA) and technologies to determine effectiveness and acceptance by customers as well as assessing security, privacy, and performance concerns.

The financial industry, one of the leaders in the field, has been working hard to find solutions to reduce the ever-growing impacts of fraud in a digital world, which currently accounts for billions of dollars stolen.

We can use our knowledge from activities in other industries to learn, adapt and apply similar models that can meet our unique needs and help guide us in our approach to innovation and improved customer experience in the air travel industry.

National identity programs

Of particular interest are the digital identity initiatives led by governments for the creation of national identity programs. These tie biometric and biographic information to a state-run enrollment program to help manage social and civil programs, as well as reduce voter fraud.

Fundamental to identity assurance and verification is the authenticity of the identity itself. The source of identity must be of the highest quality and trust to be accepted by others in the value chain. These programs can provide quality sources of identity assurance in airport self-service when integrated with airline and airport solutions.

Trusted traveler programs

Building on this are a number of government-led and privately managed trusted traveler programs. These link biographic and biometric information to a paid enrollment program that allows travelers to undergo extensive background checks to gain access to expedited screening and travel privileges.

At present, these programs tend to be regional and are limited in implementation.

World Economic Forum: global program

Collaborative efforts with organizations like the World Economic Forum (WEF) are promoting the idea of a global trusted traveler program. This could provide a great opportunity to reduce risk in the travel space and allow better integration of trusted traveler programs on a global scale.

All member travelers would become ‘known travelers’, allowing for better risk-based systems implementation and staffing models that would allow travelers to be pre-vetted before arrival. This would set the foundation for the vision of the frictionless airport experience.

That said, the creation of these enrollment programs raises concerns about cybersecurity and data privacy as well as the need to avoid creation of a global database where everyone’s information is stored and potentially subject to vulnerabilities.

Blockchain's promise

This is where the potential of new technologies, such as blockchain, hold attraction. They promise to allow data sharing between parties without requiring a central database, allowing participants to easily opt in or opt out, so addressing key privacy concerns.

As of today, more than 30 start-ups claim to have blockchain-based identity solutions at various stages of maturity and usage. It is certain that as the technology continues to advance and converge, we will see on the horizon an enterprise solution for the air transport industry.

Certainly, as the number of technology providers and solutions continues to evolve, so too will the need for consortiums and associations to help foster collaboration across industries on design and development of solutions and standards.

Key initiatives are already underway through organizations such as Open Identity Exchange (OIX), Fast Identity Online (FIDO), International Air Transport Association (IATA), International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), Airport Council International (ACI), and World Economic Forum (WEF), Self-Sovereign Identity (SSI).

Decisions, decisions …

With all this disparate activity, how do we decide what to do? Which approach and solution is ‘right’?

First, we must agree on a baseline standard. The universal standard document across the travel industry is the passport, which is based on biographic detail and a photograph.

Many countries now produce e-chip passports to secure this data and protect it from fraud, providing a higher level of assurance in its authenticity and serving as a trustworthy foundation for identity assurance.

Whether performing checks manually or using a biometric solution, facial recognition is used to ‘match’ the passport holder to the photograph and make the decision to grant access to systems.

The use of any other biometric (such as iris or fingerprint) requires access to, plus collection and storage of, an alternative biometric to provide a reference source for future comparison and matching. This limits implementation to a small subset of selected travelers who choose to opt in and allow their biometric to be collected and stored.

That’s not to say that other biometric modalities will not be accepted or supported, possibly with higher levels of accuracy as technology evolves at a different pace for each.

However, when looking for the widest opportunity for global adoption, the passport and facial recognition technologies offer the greatest immediate promise.

As national identity programs and / or trusted traveler programs gain adoption, this can certainly change, depending on which biometric modality each state or entity chooses to implement.


Biometric technology is continually advancing so any investment in today’s solutions must consider a design that’s future-proof, able to keep pace with technology evolution and have the ability to create a consistent customer experience across providers and networks.

Single token travel and one ID

IATA’s Simplify the Business (StB) Think Tank collaborated in 2016 on defining a strategy for single token travel and the ‘Travel Identity of the Future’.

The focus of implementation considers whole journey management and single-token travel. It combines biometric, biographic and trip information into a single form factor to create a seamless process for all stakeholders in the journey: one that’s highly secure, involves reduced administration and improves the passenger experience.

Beyond the obvious security and privacy considerations, the key objectives of ‘Travel Identity of the Future’ emphasize the need for persistence (beyond one trip), interoperability (beyond one airport or airline), and borderless (beyond one country, government) capabilities.

Mobile and blockchain – key enablers

IATA’s One ID white papers and the New Experience in Travel and Technologies (NEXTT) initiative, in partnership with ACI, will continue to drive that emphasis with a push towards standards and industry guidelines.

Mobile and blockchain technologies are seen as key enablers for a global solution. They represent a core area of ongoing strategic industry research and project use cases.

Advance now – delight the passenger

The time has never been more right for airline, airport and government stakeholders to collaborate on integrated solutions that delight customers, reduce risk and improve efficiencies in operation and security.

We operate in highly regulated environments, and safety and security will always be the primary consideration. Deterring bad actors from choosing airports for their activities is at least as high a priority as traveler convenience.

But the use of innovative concepts and technologies to increase security, enhance screening and improve access controls will lead to the creation of efficient, safe, end-to-end solutions. These will support continued industry growth and an improved customer experience. In short, now is the time to explore and advance. 

SITA: a founding steward of the Sovrin Foundation

As a Founding Steward of the Sovrin Foundation, SITA will lead exploration into self-sovereign identity in travel. Sovrin Foundation is a private-sector, international non-profit whose mission is to enable self-sovereign identity online.

  • SITA will collaborate with the Sovrin Foundation and other Sovrin Stewards to create, operate and maintain the foundation’s decentralized digital identity network.
  • Sovrin is a decentralized, global public utility for self-sovereign identity. Self-sovereign means a lifetime portable identity for any person, organization, or thing that allows the holder to present verifiable credentials in a privacy-protecting way.
  • These credentials can represent things as diverse as a passport, an airline ticket or simply a library card.
Read the full news release

Conduct a trial and build the business case

We operate in a risk-averse industry with high regulatory constraints and limited budget for innovation. With the seeming uncertainty, changing regulation and innumerable options, how does an airline, airport or government agency choose a direction or get started?

The important thing is to start with a trial or scientific approach to find the right solution.

Be sure to have clear key performance indicators (executive top five will do) and approach the project as a scientific hypothesis – define expected results and objectives, what to measure, how to measure – and commit to actively monitor, measure and report progress.

This period should be used to define the criteria for developing a business case and support decision-making for future investment.

Pick a simple use case, one that is low risk and relatively straightforward. This is often called the “happy path”, the basic, straight-line flow with no edge cases, exceptions or “extreme” error handling. Edge cases and exceptions can be introduced over time as separate project phases.

Run a small experiment during a well-defined, time-boxed period (45 days, 90 days, 6 months, 2 years). Whatever the period that you determine to be right for your environment requires active implementation, support for data collection, monitoring and diagnostics.

During this time, the team will collect metrics and information to drive the learning and help solidify the investment business case. Due diligence is critical during this period.

Practice adaptive learning. Monitor systems and behavior, conduct objective diagnostic analysis, assess performance, then adapt your approach as you test and acquire new knowledge. Pivot if you identify a new opportunity that you had not initially considered.

Be bold and stop the test if performance expectations are not met or negatively impact operations, staff or experience.

Other key recommendations

  • Choose solutions that meet today’s needs while also supporting future growth. This helps ensure the infrastructure is future-proof and resilient to meet the demands of changing technologies and customer expectations.
  • Digital natives will soon be the industry’s primary customers and solutions must continually evolve to support the ever-changing expectations of our tech-savvy customers.
  • Security and safety is the primary focus of the industry. Customer experience gives airlines as well as airport operators the ability to differentiate, add value and generate new revenues.
  • With the right value proposition, passengers will willingly share information that increases security in exchange for convenience and access to a faster, easier process.
  • When exploring new technologies and evaluating the investment business case, choose to explore options through time-boxed trials, with clearly defined evaluation criteria and objectives.
  • Take a pragmatic approach and invest in phases that can increase in complexity and scale to address edge cases or potential areas of concern that could impact enterprise rollout.

Footnote: The full version of this article by Sherry Stein of SITA was written for the European Civil Aviation Conference newsletter 2018.

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