Now We Know Why Delta Has Partnered With CLEAR

Delta, Technology

More than a year ago, Delta announced it was partnering with CLEAR, the company that allows you to cut to the front of the security line in exchange for providing biometric data (and paying for the service). Delta went so far to provide its Diamond elites with free membership. At the time, I called it weird, but now it’s starting to make more sense. Delta is now working toward a biometric boarding pass powered by CLEAR, but I’m not sure this is the right way to go.

Delta is testing this new idea at Washington’s National airport. In the first phase, it’s not all that great. If you’re a CLEAR member and you also have a SkyClub membership, then you can gain access to the SkyClub simply by scanning your thumbprint. You no longer will need to show your ID or boarding pass or anything like that. Presumably this phase is meant just to ensure that the technology can work well for controlling access to something before the next phase begins.

In phase two, travelers will be able to check a bag without any identification beyond the fingerprint. They would also be able to board their flights the same way. No more needing to print out a boarding pass or fumble around on your phone to pull one up… just bring your finger and you’ll be able to make your way through the entire airport experience.

Presumably, once the kinks are worked out and this proves to be effective, Delta will roll this out everywhere… eventually. But it’ll still be somewhat awkward in that it will create yet another layer in the already complex boarding process. You’ll still have to be a CLEAR member to use this, so it once again creates the haves and have-nots. Might there be a better way?

Delta isn’t the only one playing around with this idea. JetBlue is doing a test of its own with an entirely different system. What JetBlue is trying allows boarding using facial recognition on its Boston to Aruba flight.

For this, JetBlue has partnered with airline technology provider SITA. When you step up to board, you’ll have your photo taken. Then SITA will send the photo to Customs and Border Protection to see if it matches your passport photo. If so, you’re good to board.

There are two obvious problems with this system. First, you have to have a passport. This is certainly a reasonable request for an international flight like the Boston to Aruba run, but for domestic flying, there will be plenty of people who don’t have one. Second, it’s easy to game the system since we all know that Face/Off was a documentary. Do we really want John Travolta to be able to board a flight under Nicholas Cage’s name? I think not.

But seriously, these are all big steps forward toward what will inevitably be the make our way through the airport in the future. The idea that we should need paper or even an electronic boarding pass will soon seem archaic, if it doesn’t already. Now the priority is simply a matter of finding which method is the best method.

It would be bad news if every airline decided to do something different and proprietary as appears to be the case with the Delta test. Many airports are moving toward common use ticket counters and gates, and if every airline requires a different kind of technology it will be an enormous and costly pain.

Delta sees CLEAR as an easy way to do this since the biometric data is already collected and the hardware to identify people is in use. Once it could convince the feds that it was reliable enough for aircraft boarding, then it was off to the races. I completely understand the Delta strategy. But it is reasonable to expect every airline to sign on to the CLEAR platform and then have people pay to play? It seems like a stretch.

Maybe CLEAR will be the answer to everyone’s problems, but I’m holding out hope that whatever the solution may be, it will be standardized so all carriers can use it. The ultimate goal should be to eliminate paper and electronic boarding passes for everyone. The race to prove which technology is best has now begun.

Get Cranky in Your Inbox!

The airline industry moves fast. Sign up and get every Cranky post in your inbox for free.

24 comments on “Now We Know Why Delta Has Partnered With CLEAR

  1. As a Global Entry member, Im not always against biometric methods, but I see lots of privacy and identity security issues with going to systems by a variety of private operators storing so much biometric data. So, hopefully this doesnt actually take off.

  2. I have no problem with innovation that will move the air industry ahead, even if there are growing pains along the way. However I do have a problem with innovations that do nothing to make the actual travel experience better. Biometrics will likely do little or nothing to solve the crush at TSA checkpoints that comes with too many travelers and too few screeners; waiting areas that have half the number of seats they should; inadequate rules that still allow people to carry too much oversized crap onto the plane with them; and the whole cattle car mentality that has become air travel. While airlines tout their new or refurbished planes, on-board movies or corn chips, do-it-yourself apps, and their (dubious) loyalty programs, they fail to recognize the travel experience is ruined long before the seat belt light goes on. I’m still waiting for an airline, any airline, to come up with an efficiency idea that makes the entire travel experience, check-in to baggage claim, less onerous for the average traveler, regardless of where they sit on the plane.

    1. Maybe quite difficult 100%; Planes fly with permission of Mother Nature, consent of pilots/mechanics and tandem with federal and union work rules.

    1. Yeah, and I’ve been using my fingerprint to unlock my phone for just as long. But for both the phone and the Alaska Lounge, they don’t really have to verify your identity and tie it robustly to your identification. I don’t know if they checked your ID when you set up the fingerprint access, but they certainly don’t routinely check my ID when I access the Alaska Lounge. They just have to verify that it’s the same fingerprint that was used to set up the access. They probably don’t have to even store your fingerprint in a way that they can read it; certainly on the iPhone, Apple doesn’t. Instead, they store an encrypted hash of your fingerprint and compare an encrypted hash of the fingerprint each time you authenticate.

  3. No doubt there will be problems, and also no doubt there will be workarounds. The one detail that I don’t see happening is the elimination of boarding passes. People get stupefied enough once they enter an airport — but expect them to remember a seat assignment and you know just what will happen. No problem for airlines that don’t assign seats. of course. Even then, with 150 seats available, suddenly everybody in the waiting area will claim to be in boarding group A (or whatever).

    The biggest problem is privacy. A large portion of people aren’t going to be willing to be fingerprinted, etc. That’ll gum up the works for everybody.

    1. Exactly. The boarding pass serves not only as an entry pass for the plane, but is also providing information to the traveler prior to that. I see very little benefit in eliminating the use of that document purely for boarding (but keep it around for informational purposes). The TSA, however, would probably love fingerprinting as it effectively introduces an ID check at the gate.

    1. Clear takes all ten fingers and typically uses your index and middle fingers on your right hand to verify identity.

  4. So Airlines want the future today but they can’t even get yesterday to work right today.

  5. So today if my flight doesn’t post to my FF account airlines typically require the boarding pass to be sent in (makes little sense because it isn’t proof of travel, but whatever).

    In the future, will I have to cut off my thumb and mail it in instead?

  6. The problem with these biometric ids is that it’s trivial for even non security experts to get past them. Mythbusters showed how simple it was to get someone’s finger prints and then use them to gain entry (using Gummy Bears!) and they were just goofing around for the show. As much as I’m morally against our idiotic security theater, I object to making a two-tiered system that is no more (and could arguably be less) secure than what we have now.

  7. Alaska’s biometric access control at its lounge network seems to work well. Rarely any line since so many people just scan their finger and go in.

  8. “Maybe CLEAR will be the answer to everyone’s problems, but I’m holding out hope that whatever the solution may be, it will be standardized so all carriers can use it. The ultimate goal should be to eliminate paper and electronic boarding passes for everyone. The race to prove which technology is best has now begun.”

    My best guess is that Delta is really trying to figure out if this kind of approach, tying fingerprints to a record of your identity, can work. They’ll pay CLEAR for the test, but I would guess that they would either bring it in house or try to convince the TSA to use it if they want to expand more widely.

    I certainly have privacy concerns about this, especially if the fingerprints are stored in a way such that they can be read. If they’re stored like a password or like the fingerprints on the secure enclave on an iPhone such that there’s only an encrypted hash of the fingerprints without a decryption key, I’m less concerned.

  9. There are three major players in the biometric field- Cogent Systems (recently sold by 3M to Gemalto), MorphoTrust, and NEC. While there is much good that can come from automating the identification process, there is still a ways to go before I’d fully trust its implementation. I’ve seen from the inside how this data is handled. Let’s just say I’m not yet ready to fully trust it.

  10. My wife’s employer had a similar system for them to clock in and out. Only problem was it wouldn’t recognize half of the finger prints. As far as eliminating paper use they have been trying to do that since the advent of computers and still haven’t succeeded. Most people are still going to want to have that boarding pass in hand before they board a fight. I don’t think that is going to change soon,

  11. What could go wrong. It’s not like IT systems EVER not work right. Also I’d like to know more about why CLEAR customers should be allowed to cut in front of other tax payers in the PreCheck line. Who agreed to that? Does the TSA get a kickback? I’m sure there are answers to this question. Maybe I should launch my own service for cutting in line in the regular TSA line. I’m sure that would go over well. Maybe I’ll call mine “MUDDY” :)

  12. I can’t rely on an airline (or any other online business) to protect my address and credit card information reliably. Adding biometric identifiers to this pool of available (to the right hacker) data seems foolhardy at this point.

  13. This story aside, can anybody explain why I (with precheck) would want CLEAR? What does CLEAR offer me that’s better than precheck?

  14. I just flew back from Tel Aviv and they use this technology at passport control on the way out. You scan your passport and a machine takes your live pic to match and gives you a card to let you through. I thought it seemed like an easily gamed system (once you have your barcode card just give it to your badguy friend), but if the Israeli’s are using it, there must be ways to cut out the loopholes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Cranky Flier