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Seamless Travel – how facial recognition is revolutionising travel and security

Facial recognition has become an increasingly prevalent part of our lives, most commonly with smartphones and their apps that we use on a day-to-day basis. Now, however, businesses, organisations and entire sectors are finding new ways to utilise its capabilities, combining it with complementary technologies to provide streamlined, secure and personalised services. 

A strong example of this can be seen in air travel where facial recognition is already being incorporated with the ambition to fully integrate the technology as part of the entire end-to-end, “couch to coach” airport experience. It’s not quite there yet but things are quickly heading in that direction and it’s easy to see the profound and positive impact it will have. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has hastened the process, removing friction from the experience to increase passenger throughput at all stages of the journey is critical to avoiding the alternative of building ever-larger airports and facilities.  Whilst domestic travel is still possible in some countries around the world, most international travel is currently grounded and this is giving airports the opportunity to reassess the journey through the terminal, reducing the number of contact points as the world moves ever closer to a contactless society.

A unique biometric key for every passenger 

The primary feature which will make this end-to-end integration possible is the creation of a unique biometric key for every passenger which is connected by that individual’s face. Facial recognition technology has now developed with enough accuracy, precision and sophistication to distinguish, recognise and authenticate one individual from all others.  

This creates the pivot from which multiple touchpoints can be included and connected, enabling frictionless transitions at various stages and interactions of the airport experience. It is also an example of two technologies, biometric data and facial recognition, complementing one another to create a whole new experience and level of service.  

The ticketless potential 

The other great aspect in creating a unique biometric key for every passenger is that it negates the need for additional forms of identification and ticketing that are, at this point in time, a necessity. The information that is currently included in airline tickets, boarding passes and even passports could easily be uploaded onto the biometric key with facial recognition used to connect that data to the passenger. 

This fact alone will immediately relieve so much of the stress and anxiety currently associated with air travel from the passenger point of view. When you consider the additional resource that airlines currently spend dealing with issues such as lost tickets/boarding passes and passports, the broader benefits to the sector as a whole become even more clear.  

Eliminating repetitive processes 

The airport experience is currently characterised by a lot of repetitive processes. Passport, ID and/or ticket checks are required at check-in counters/kiosks and security on the airport side and upon boarding on the terminal side. Further checks are then required on arrival, through customs and immigration.  

Many of these stages involve a protracted human interaction which slows down the process at each interval. Using facial recognition technology, many of these checks could be automated with measures in place to manually check only those passengers who get flagged by the system through biometric data. Not only does this mean a lower level of intrusiveness for regular passengers but it also means current resources could be redirected to real and genuine threats to safety and security. 

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, it also creates an opportunity for airports to reduce the contact points, helping to reduce the potential spread of COVID-19 and other germs throughout the airport experience.

Creating commercial opportunities 

The great thing about the efficiency gains made to the check-in/boarding/security processes is that the reduction of time spent in queue management increases the pedestrian flow in other parts of the airport. This creates great opportunities for businesses in those areas to take advantage of passengers will also have more time on their hands which gives retailers more opportunity to make that sale.  

Retailers themselves could also use facial recognition at the point of transaction. For example, passengers with airpoints/miles could have that data connected to their unique biometric key which they could then spend via a facial recognition initiated transaction.  

NEC and the Star Alliance Partnership 

NEC has been working towards these goals for some time now and in 2019 announced a partnership with the Star Alliance network that will see many of these initiatives come to life.  

The partnership will see NEC develop a biometric data-based identification platform for frequent flyer program customers of Star Alliance member airlines. Facial recognition will play a key role in this to help create the seamless experience described above through check-in, bag drop, lounges and boarding gates.  

As the world’s largest airline alliance, the implications of the partnership are huge and will no doubt change and shape the air travel passenger experience for years to come.  


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