Biometric Boarding Goes Live at Miami International Airport

Your face is all you need to board some flights at the Florida airport as of Friday, when U.S. Customs and Border Protection and MIA officials announced a new facial recognition boarding system.

by Rob Wile, Miami Herald / February 5, 2019
Shutterstock/Design Cells

(TNS) — Say cheese, and hold the passport: A change is coming to how you board international flights at Miami International Airport.

On Friday, MIA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials unveiled a new biometric boarding process for a Lufthansa flight heading to Munich, Germany. Instead of showing their passports and boarding passes, passengers simply stopped in front of a camera, had their photo taken by an iPad-shaped, automated camera, and were cleared to board by a computer.

It’s the first of what could eventually be a systemwide phase-in, not just MIA but for most international flights in the U.S. The roll-out allows airlines to better comply with a federal requirement that the U.S. government know who has left the country. Biometric systems have already been put in place at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta, Boston-Logan, and Los Angeles international airports.

“What the facial recognition technology does is allow us to have a positive identification on who we’re dealing with,” said Christopher Maston, port director for the Miami office of the customs agency. “So all of these issues surrounding identity theft and people attempting to avoid detection — this closes a lot of those [loopholes] for us.”

For travelers, it should mean faster boarding times and eliminate the need to show one’s passport at the gate. Lufthansa said that at a trial in Los Angeles this week, 300 passengers were able to board a flight in 23 minutes.

“This is the future of air travel, where we can really begin to provide a walkthrough experience, from check-in to the aircraft door,” Matthys Serfontein, vice president of airports for SITA, the Europe-based company developing the technology, said in a statement.

Or, as Patrick Sgueglia, a Lufthansa spokesman, said: The days of sticking your boarding pass in your mouth, or fishing around for it in your pocket, are numbered.

If you’re concerned about your privacy, you might wonder: Where will my portrait be held?

The answer: By the federal government. SITA’s scanning device converts your face into digitized information and instantly sends it through to a Customs and Border Patrol matching database, to ensure you are who you say you are. The agency, it turns out, already has all of your information on file if you’ve ever traveled internationally, including your passport photo. SITA does not keep any information.

Customs representatives say photos of U.S. citizens will be deleted immediately after its inspection is completed. Photos for all other individuals, the agency says, will be stored in a secure Customs data system — unless a person is associated with a law enforcement action, or the photo is otherwise shared for a lawful purpose.

For now, the process is opt-in, meaning if you’re camera shy, you can go the traditional route of having your passport scanned.

“I think it’s a great thing,” said Frank Pfleiderer, who was among the first passengers on the Munich flight to try the tech. “It‘s so easy — the door opens — it’s a great experience. I’m not concerned about my privacy in the U.S. because when I arrived I gave my picture to everyone anyway.”

Katie Martineau of Miami Beach, another passenger flying to Munich, was a bit more apprehensive when she learned her photo would be taken as she was boarding if she didn’t opt out.

“I think I’d probably trade a little longer wait time for a little more privacy,” she said.

©2019 Miami Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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