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Delta Brings Biometric Boarding to Detroit Airport

Condé Nast Traveler logo Condé Nast Traveler 7/19/2018 Barbara Peterson
a close up of a logo: Boarding pass Face, please. © Illustration by Brown Bird Design Boarding pass Face, please.

If you’re flying out of Detroit, starting this week you could find an unexpected perk: the ability to stroll onto the plane without presenting a smartphone or a piece of paper. Your face, in effect, will serve as your boarding pass.

That’s because Delta Air Lines is bringing biometric boarding devices to its Michigan hub following tests of the technology at two of its other main international gateways, New York-JFK and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta. Delta's working with Customs and Border Patrol, which has partnered with several other airlines including JetBlue and Lufthansa, to test biometric technology that scans passengers’ faces to speed up the boarding process. Here's how it works: Interested fliers simply approach the camera at the gate when it's their turn to board, and after their image is captured, they get a receipt and board the plane.

In Detroit, initially it will be deployed for just one flight a day, to Tokyo's Narita, at one gate, A36, which handles some of the ultra-long flights to overseas destinations that operate out of DTW; among the cities served nonstop from the hub are Beijing, Seoul, and Shanghai. Delta isn’t announcing in advance which flights will eventually be involved but said it expects to add more flights in the coming months until it's an option for all international flights departing from that gate.

Biometric identification, as we reported earlier this year, is becoming more common at airports around the world, and, among U.S. airlines, Delta has been an unabashed champion of the new technology. Several years ago, it acquired a five percent stake in the trusted traveler membership program, Clear, which allows fliers to jump to the head of the line at security using fingerprint or iris scans. The two have teamed up to offer reduced rate membership to Delta Skymiles members and the ability to use biometric scans to gain entry to airport lounges (and avoid the scrum of weary fliers waiting to show their membership card or boarding pass). In addition, it’s working to use biometric IDs for bag drops. Through its arrangement with Clear and others, it could create a situation where you could get from curb to seat all with biometric scanning.

Delta executives say that they believe that consumer acceptance is growing as biometric IDs permeate all aspects of our lives. “From unlocking our phones to entering the workplace, more and more people have the option to use biometrics as a form of identity verification for daily activities,” said Gil West, Delta's chief operating officer.

Others may have concerns, however. Biometric facial IDs have been in the news lately mostly in connection with privacy concerns and its use in law enforcement. Delta’s response to those uncomfortable with the idea of getting their face scanned by an airline is that this will always remain optional. In fact, at the boarding gate, agents are trained to remind customers that they don't have to participate in the biometric scanning, and a sign posted near the entry reads, “Boarding using facial recognition technology is optional. Please see a gate agent with any questions or concerns.” Customers who don’t want to participate, simply board the old fashioned way, using their boarding pass instead.

But based on recent trials, airlines say that there’s little resistance. In fact, Lufthansa has recently been touting the results of one test where, using biometric scanning, it was able to board 350 passengers onto a double-decker Airbus A380 in just 20 minutes.

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