During the last year and a half, aviation has suffered many blows from the Covid-19 pandemic, including tremendous losses in passenger numbers and therefore revenue.

Another unwelcome side effect of the pandemic is the longer queueing time for passengers in airports because of social distancing and security restrictions.

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In April, Heathrow’s chief solutions officer told the UK Parliament Transport Select Committee that queuing times at the airport had increased to up to six hours, as border officials are obliged to check each passenger’s documents – including the passenger locator form and the proof of negative Covid-19 test – manually.

“Queues and wait times will currently be longer, as it is vital that we undertake thorough checks at the border and due to the fact that some passengers have not completed the necessary requirements to enter the UK, such as purchasing Covid testing packages or booking their hotel quarantine in advance,” the Financial Times reported the Home Office as saying.

To solve the problem, airports and carriers around the world are testing biometric technology, which enables passengers to pass through an airport without ever using their passport or plane ticket.


Smart tunnels at Dubai International Airport

UAE carrier Emirates launched an integrated biometric pathway at Dubai International Airport in October 2020 for travellers to pass through the airport without showing any documents.

The technology – which uses facial and iris recognition and was implemented by Vision-Box – allows passengers to check in, complete immigration forms and board in a contactless way, as well as reducing queueing times and supporting health and security measures.

“We have always focused on providing a great customer experience at any touchpoint and now it is more vital than before to make use of technology and implement products and introduce processes that focus not only on fast-tracking customers but more importantly on health and safety during their travel journey,” said Emirates COO Adel Al Redha. “The state-of-the-art, contactless biometric path is the latest in a series of initiatives we have introduced to make sure that travelling on Emirates is a seamless journey and gives customers added peace of mind.”

As part of the biometric pathway, Dubai’s General Directorate of Residence and Foreign Affairs in collaboration with Emirates developed a technology called Smart Tunnel, which enables passenger to be automatically cleared by immigration authorities while walking through it.

The biometric pathway and Smart Tunnel are not the only technological implementations introduced at Dubai Airport. In February 2021, the hub also installed touchless check-in and bag drop kiosks, which can be controlled by mobile phones, allowing passengers to avoid touching self-check-in screens.


Facial recognition and data privacy at Japanese airports

Technology companies NEC and Amadeus announced in March 2021 the launch of Face Express, a boarding procedure for international departure flights that uses facial recognition technology, allowing passengers to go through the airport without showing their documents.

Initially trialled at the Japanese airports of Narita and Tokyo Haneda, Face Express will be implemented on Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines flights from July, with plans to extend it to other companies.

Passenger will need to scan their passports and register their boarding passes at a Face Express machine. The machine will scan facial data, actively turning each traveller’s face into their passport and boarding pass.

The technology has raised concerns regarding data privacy but both airports have said that images obtained through Face Express and all information that can identify a traveller will be deleted within 24 hours. Passenger will also be able to opt out and go through normal security screenings if they feel uncomfortable.


Implementing smarter borders at the EU level

In the EU, the concept of smart borders was initially created in 2013 as the number of non-Schengen nationals coming into the country was increasing. Legislation approved in 2017 and 2018 created respectively the Entry/Exit System Regulation (EES) and the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS).

The systems – which will be implemented in 2022 – will record travellers’ biometric data as well as their personal information and date and place of entry and exit. The aim is to identify risks, such as security, migration or health – coming from non-Schengen visitors whilst making it easier for passengers to move through the Union’s borders.

The implementation has not been without its challenges. According to data from the Global Airport, Passenger & Accessibility Symposium – which was carried out by the International Air Transport Association in 2019 – the majority of passengers find immigration and security procedures the most stressful part of air travel and are only able to tolerate very short queues.

To solve the problem, air transport information technology company SITA believes that its automated border control kiosks can help process great numbers of passengers, maintaining health and safety measures.

“SITA’s ABC kiosks are easily integrated with existing Entry-Exit systems, e-Gates, and pre-enrolment mobile apps,” wrote SITA strategy and portfolio director Peter Sutcliffe in a blog post. “They provide a platform to add components to create a biometrically-enabled and high throughput immigration process.”

Designed with the passenger in mind, the kiosks have simplifying screens and multi-language support and can process family groups, making them part of a bigger process of maximising passengers’ fluid movement throughout an airport.

“SITA has worked extensively with infrastructure operators to ensure that traveller education does not start at the self-service device – but is part of a journey that begins with video instructions during travel, signage in the arrivals area, and the deployment of trained personnel to provide support to travellers,” added Sutcliffe.