Facial Recognition Technology is Coming to an Airport Near You

Christopher Benek

Last year, I returned to the United States from an international trip. I was traveling from London Heathrow to Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport. The onboarding process in London was laborious but I had no idea what I would encounter when I reached Atlanta. My welcome to the United States was an ineffective customs process.

With little more than an hour before my connecting flight started boarding, I encountered a 250- to 300-person line trying to funnel through a 5-station customs check. Arriving passengers were not only annoyed by the delays, they were outright upset. When a lady next to me notified the head customs officer that she had just landed and her connecting flight boarded in 20 minutes, he responded: “that’s not my problem.”

I have no doubt that that lady missed her connecting flight. My flight left 40 minutes after she asked her question and I literally had to put my luggage on my shoulder and run through the airport like John McClane in Die Hard trying to make my own. The finishing touch was the absurdly rude responses that I and other paying passengers got along the way. The whole time, only one thing was going through my mind: Just automate this entire process.

Robots are better at some things than humans and, if we are going to automate jobs, lets start with the ones that cause the general public the most grief. Fortunately, some airports are listening to this frustration by travelers and they have decided to do something about it. Enter facial recognition technology.

Officials at London's Heathrow Airport will be rolling out facial recognition tech this summer that streamlines the entire airline process. Wired Magazine reports that:

“When a passenger shows up at check-in, the system will take a digital image of their face, comparing it to the one on their scanned passport and tying it to their flight details. When it's time to go through security, and later to board the aircraft, facial recognition is used to open automated gates rather than showing a boarding pass to a guard or scanning a barcode. ‘We're really trying to remove the constant need to show your passport or boarding card through that journey,’ Simon Wilcox, programme manager for automation at Heathrow, says.” Staff officials at Heathrow believe that facial recognition technology will reduce the time that it takes to get through the airport by a third.

Similar efforts have been introduced at Shanghai’s Hongqiao airport for their check in system and the United States is trialing similar systems at some international airports and seeking to extend this to domestic flights as well. Ironically, The Economist reported that Hartsfield-Jackson launched its first biometric terminal on October 15, 2018 – the same day I last traveled through Atlanta. Thankfully, the tech was expanded throughout the airport’s international terminal on December 1st.

Reality Changing Observations:

Q1. Does integrating facial recognition systems into airport processes excite you or concern you, and why?

Q2. If you could automate any other aspect of the airport experience, what would it be and why?

Q3. What other jobs in society do you think should be automated and why?