Three Los Angeles-area airports are replacing their identification card reader systems and prepping security infrastructure for an eventual upgrade to biometric-based identification.

Los Angeles International, LA/Ontario International and Van Nuys airports are moving from a magnetic swipe card system to a contactless “proximity reader.” As the work is done, infrastructure is being rolled out to use iris scan or other biometric identification technology beginning in 2012.

Dominic Nessi, deputy executive director and CIO of Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), which oversees operations at the three airports, said replacement of the access control and alarm monitoring system’s magnetic card readers is done regularly as the equipment and swipe cards wear out.

But instead of doing the work piecemeal, LAWA elected to change out the entire system and get a head start on the infrastructure improvements. While the organization currently favors the future use of iris scan technology, LAWA is keeping its options open regarding biometric security in the coming year.

“What we are doing in this current project is putting the wiring in place so we can add biometric readers, irrespective of the technology,” Nessi said. “By December of next year, we’ll either reaffirm our decision to utilize iris scan technology or we’ll review other technologies that may have entered the market by that time.”

He added that while fingerprint scans are the old biometric standard, factors such as greasy hands and people carrying items are issues LAWA wants to avoid. That’s why iris scan technology is being considered, as it appears to be the least invasive option.

Currently employee access at the airports runs on a two-factor authentication system — the swipe cards and a personal identification number. Ultimately, however, the addition of a biometric identification system is something LAWA feels needs to be done to keep up with security best practices.

“Our goal is to secure physical access throughout the airport as much as possible, and we feel a major part of that is to add a third form of authentication, particularly on those doors that go out to the airfield and other sensitive areas,” Nessi explained.

LAWA is also moving its access control and alarm monitoring system to a newer and more reliable network. Nessi said the old network was built on standards from 15 years ago and was causing difficulty with various doors in the airports. If one microcontroller for a door failed, it would sometimes have a cascade effect, shutting down multiple access points. The new network and architecture should alleviate those problems, he said.

Unisys, the vendor that LAWA has used for the past three years as its maintenance and operations contractor for its access control and alarm monitoring system, was awarded a $10.3 million contract for the proximity reader project, which will span 870 access points in the airports. The company will also handle the network infrastructure upgrades.

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.