The first modern passports were printed in Europe in 1914. At the time, it was viewed by some as a regression. In the previous decades, as services such as the Orient Express had made the continent smaller, the idea that officials would check the papers of every traveller who crossed a national border was seen as a waste of time and money. So several countries took what they considered to be the next logical step: they abolished their various border control systems altogether.

On the eve of the First World War, however, a system was needed to forestall the unauthorised movement of enemy aliens – spies – into friendly territory. In response, the UK passed a law issuing the country’s first modern passport, valid for two years. The document was flimsy; a single page folded eight times and backed with cardboard. In addition to including a photograph and signature of the carrier, this early passport contained several additional details, including complexion, head shape and ‘features’, a catch-all list of facial characteristics bordering on the physiognomic – a drooping mouth, perhaps, or unusually small eyes.

The travel documents of today are not nearly as intrusive or folded. Nevertheless, they contain a wealth of information that is no less personal. Most modern passports are biometric, referring to the embedded electronic chips that can authenticate the user’s identity, usually through digital imaging but also by supplying details about the bearer’s fingerprints and irises.

This relatively advanced system, however, is limited in scope to a few airports across Europe, while most continue to rely on the old-fashioned way of doing things – letting passengers line up in a long queue while an official tries to match the passport photo with the person standing in front of them. However, with more people choosing to fly – numbers are expected to nearly double to 7.6 billion annually by 2038, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) – major hubs like Heathrow are recognising the need for high-tech alternatives.

“We’ve been using biometrics at Heathrow for a number of years now,” says Simon Wilcox, passenger automation programme lead at the airport. As early as 2006, a biometric system called ‘miSense’ was trialled using fingerprint technology, followed six years later by an experiment with eye scanners. Since then, however, the technology has evolved to let British Airways use biometric boarding for Irish and domestic flights running out of Terminals 2 and 5, and now Heathrow is looking to upscale the technology across the entire airport.

Control and survey

And Heathrow is not alone. Individual airlines have embarked on implementing biometric checks on selected routes. JetBlue, for example, has used it since June 2017 for flights from Aruba and Santiago, in the Dominican Republic, to Boston. Qantas, KLM and Lufthansa have also been experimenting with the technology.

Other airports have also proved to be enthusiastic early adopters of biometric techniques. In June, Gatwick announced it would trial new auto-boarding technology as part of its £1.1-billion expansion of its two terminals, while Miami International Airport opened a federal inspection facility last February, which it claims is the first in the US to offer ‘expedited passport screening via facial recognition.’

Dubai International Airport, meanwhile, has decided to build a long, virtual aquarium for passengers to walk down. The idea being that as they marvel at the pixelated fish, hidden cameras will record their face print from a dozen different angles. According to a report in the Telegraph, when “passengers reach the end of the tunnel… they will either receive a green message reading ‘have a nice trip’ or a red alert if a security officer is required to perform further checks.”

But once that facial scan is obtained, where does it go? Biometric data is, after all, intensely personal data. Most people are ready and able to change identifying details about themselves should they be used and abused by third parties, whether it’s bank details, passwords or even, in extreme cases, names and addresses. It is much harder to achieve the same result with one’s face or fingerprints.

Wilcox is adamant the data Heathrow are collecting from passengers will remain secure. “We respect people’s privacy,” he says. “We’re working to GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] guidelines to ensure data privacy, and at the same time giving passengers the level of security and control over their journeys we know they want.”

Hence Heathrow’s preference for facial recognition. “It’s the least intrusive method,” explains Wilcox. “It’s also the identifier that people are most familiar with, insofar as they are used to using their passport to travel. That’s been the de facto travel token in aviation for decades. So, we feel that passengers will be more comfortable with that than potentially using fingerprints, which is the case in some countries.”

Heathrow has been liaising not only with the airlines, but also the UK government and industry bodies to ensure that this happens. “We’re working very closely with IATA to deliver not just something that’s right for Heathrow, but to build an identification system of the future,” explains Wilcox, who also sits on the IATA One ID advisory group. “There are some real opportunities here to create something that’s not just right for Heathrow, but for passengers everywhere. The biggest challenge that I see lies in the collaborative sharing of data and governments working together.”

Last call

Wilcox is sure that the work under way at Heathrow is more than just another experiment with passenger identification. “We’ve been doing a number of demonstrations over the past 18 months,” he says, referring to an extensive trial of biometric passenger identification at Heathrow Terminal 5’s self-boarding gates. “We are absolutely committed to the work. We have a roadmap that we’ve developed and agreed between Heathrow, the UK Government and the airline community.”

At the moment, the hub is concentrating on facilitating smoother passenger identification during departures. “We’ve been looking at biometrics with bagdrop, how it can support security processes, as well as self-boarding,” says Wilcox.

“Heathrow’s got a huge programme of investment for self-service products, including self-bagdrop and selfboarding gates. We’ve been looking at how to connect that journey so passengers only have to present their documentation once.”

Wilcox calls it a ‘face on the move’ approach. “The benefits are that it provides a better passenger experience and it’s a more secure system,” he explains. “Passengers have a smoother experience not having to constantly produce documentation throughout the airport. It also frees up airline staff from transactional tasks to give passengers service when they need it. Passing through the airport becomes a more pleasant experience.”

It seems that travellers are all for it. “Throughout all the demonstrations we’ve done, we’ve asked passengers to participate,” says Wilcox. “We weren’t just looking at transaction times, but, more importantly, asking how they would rate their experience and how easy the system was to use.” According to Wilcox, over 90% of respondents in a recent survey of travellers told the airport that they would happily use the system again – 85% were even willing to share more information about themselves to facilitate a smoother journey. The granular data obtained during these trials will be put to good use in fine-tuning the system in years to come. “Heathrow is constrained, and biometric passenger identification offers an opportunity to optimise key touchpoints in the passenger journey,” says Wilcox.

Something big is coming in this regard, according to Wilcox. “We want passenger identification to be an end-to-end experience, from the home, all the way to the departing airport, and all the way back again to your arriving airport,” he says. “My aspiration is we make that a reality by working with our airlines, the IATA and other industry bodies.”