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May 24, 2023
7 min read

Embracing the Future: Revolutionizing Airport Security with Biometrics

Jens Sanner has been working in the aviation industry for over thirty years now and he can safely say he is working on his most daring project yet: the implementation of biometrics. He learned that the most important thing to do when working on getting biometrics implemented is transparency. “Transparency is the absolute key to implementing biometrics successfully.”

You work on the digital transformation of the passenger journey. Can you tell me what that means?

“Thirty years ago when I started working in the aviation industry we all had paper tickets, coupons and other different paper things. The transformation of the passenger journey is the move from all the classic paper things towards the digital world, to paperless, to touchless and onwards to a whole virtual environment. What will the customer’s experience be in that journey? What does that look like? But also, what are the challenges that an airport faces and what type of infrastructure do we need to provide, now and in the future?”

Can you give an example of how airports are changing?

“We are moving towards the introduction of biometrics at airports which means that we are transferring to completely different technologies. This is a very difficult process. We started out for example by splitting the check-in process to give passengers more autonomy. This way they are more in control of the whole process by doing the check-in themselves and basically doing the things that are normally done by the check-in desk. In the near future the passenger can do this from home, which means we need to provide the airport with a whole new infrastructure to support this. We are going towards the implementation of biometrics where the passenger will just do everything with their face. You no longer need to deal with passports and other documents, instead your face will do the trick.”

What will be the biggest obstacles to overcome to implement biometrics?

“You could say that the passengers need to have confidence in the system and they need to feel that they are in control. So, the way you set it up is really important. We are currently putting this together in Germany and this might seem like a no-brainer, but it is absolutely essential that the passenger does this voluntarily. So, if they don’t opt in, you are not getting any data. And this really is the key element, because there is a lot of fear for biometrics. It is often used by governments as mass surveillance technology and citizens have a right to be afraid of this and it is our job to take that away. But let’s be honest, people are already used to giving away their data and this is just another issue of sharing your information and it is up to you how you want to do that.”

You basically have to win their trust.

“Exactly. We have to win back their trust in technology and in the meantime give them control over sharing their data, because it is your data and that fully belongs to you. This is currently the biggest issue we are facing. The aim of biometrics here is not for the purpose of surveillance, but to give the customer a better travel experience.”

And how do you win trust?

“Transparency. At the moment when you go to a check-in counter for a long haul flight, you need to show your passport and people can get a lot more information out of that document than is necessary. With biometrics, we try to reduce that and we make sure you can share only what others really need to know.”

How do you successfully implement biometrics?

“You need to work closely with the government of course. That can be challenging, because they don’t want to step into a minefield. So we operate completely transparently and openly and let the government know what and how things are being done and we involve everyone in the process from the early stages. We also work closely with the airlines and tech people of course and the challenge is to bring all these people under one umbrella. And to get this done properly, you need time and a lot of patience.”

What does a successful collaboration look like?

“I started with this project in 2020 and the first thing that really had to be done was to convince the government about this project. It really is vital that the government understands that we in the industry are working on the same level as the government. That is the starting point. This really helped in building trust with the government and opened doors for us. And as a result we now have a trusted partnership. We also regularly organize workshops to let the government know where we are at and what will happen in the future and how we can best do this together. And we always do this in an open and transparent way. Aviation is not a field of single players. It’s a field of common players and in this ecosystem nobody can live without the other. The more transparent you are, the more open and willing others will be. This is how you can eventually move forward. Of course this doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of time, talking and sitting down with people and constantly explaining what we are actually doing. This can be frustrating, but it really pays off when everyone decides to move forward with us.”

So, a lot of patience and transparency is needed to implement this successfully?

“Yes, if you make a mistake while implementing biometrics you lose forever. You lose trust and without trust you will lose everything. This absolutely is key to implementing it successfully.”

How do you deal with public resistance?

“You basically do the same thing you did to get the government, the aviation industry and the tech people on board. Communicate transparently. This is something that all parties involved need to do. They need to share the same message.

If one of the stakeholders tells a different story, or no story at all, can you forget about it?

“Well, yes.”

Sounds challenging.

“The aviation sector and the technology providers understood from the start that this was the only way to move forward. The tricky part was that the government is collaborating with us on this project. For everyone else in the room it was pretty clear this was the only way to handle this project and to move forward.”

What is the advantage to having biometrics in airports?

“We are reducing the data flow. We just need your name, your date of birth and your passport number. We don’t need any other information when you are traveling. We are reducing mistakes that perhaps an agent might accidentally make. And as a customer you don’t need to stop anymore at every touchpoint in an airport. It will be seamless, less stressful and touchless and you will have a totally different travel experience. And the question for the future really is, do we need borders as we know them today?”

What do you mean?

“Maybe the borders in the airport will completely disappear. You will just enter a room and everybody will be there, the transit passengers, the Schengen passengers. We will just open the gates and people can walk in and out through facial recognition while everything else has already been done at home. And you get to the airport less stressed than you probably would in the current situation.”

How do you make sure this is a seamless process for everyone?

“This is one of the key targets I have set for rolling out biometrics. It’s called KISS; Keep It Simple and Stupid. If we don’t roll this out and implement this to be used as simple and easily as possible we will lose the customer. The elderly granny who maybe only travels once, always needs to have a choice between using biometrics or referring to the old system. At Frankfurt airport we will keep using dual lines as long as possible, so people who don’t want to use biometrics can still use the classic path. There is always a fall back for the granny.”

What do people need to be taught dealing with biometrics?

“With the introduction of biometrics, you will do a lot yourself and you will do it from home. And the beauty of it is that you don’t have to be at the airport three hours in advance and then hassle with your passport and other documents. And you have self-determination to decide who you will share your data with. This will be one of the biggest changes for people.”

How do you make sure the data is secure?

“We are working on the security issues with the government, the aviation industry and our technical partners to create a special security that is not only encrypted, it really entails a lot more.”

What are the key factors to celebrate a successful implementation?

“I think you can call this a success once we have implemented the whole ecosystem. That would be a milestone. After that we can further roll it out, where it will be picked up by the gadget loving crowd and trickle down from there to the rest of the traveling public.”

What will the passenger flows look like once it has been implemented?

“As I mentioned earlier, you will do a lot of things from home, but we will see a change in security proceedings. For the people from the Schengen countries it will be a whole different world. We are used to having international terminals and Schengen terminals, but I foresee that in the future this will be gone. The other thing is that visas you need to get into certain countries will be on your smartphone and you will just access it through the airline app. The airline will have some tool running in the background to properly do all the checks, grant you permission and off you go. Baggage checks will also be done with biometrics which means no more baggage checks. It will speed things up and make airports more efficient.”

How long before this is a daily reality?

“I think we will see the first changes either in 2024 or 2025. In 2030 we will wonder if there was ever anything else.”