Biometric Boarding is Coming Whether You Like It Or Not (and You Should Like It)


I headed out to gate 152 in the Bradley Terminal at LAX last Thursday to watch British Airways board a 787 bound for London. This may sound incredibly boring, but it was actually rather fascinating. The test was really a media event designed to show off technology to board an aircraft using facial recognition and nothing else. This sounds like a novelty. After all, why would an airline invest so much money into facial recognition just to save a few bucks on printing paper boarding passes? But there’s much more to this. It involves a US Congressional mandate, so get ready for this to become the norm. Don’t worry, it’s not a bad thing.

What’s this about a Congressional mandate? Remember back when the decision was made to enforce stricter exit procedures for people leaving the US? The initial assumption was that this was just going to bog down the airport experience further. In other countries, it’s fairly common to pass through an immigration checkpoint upon departure so they can note that you are leaving the country. We don’t do that in the US at all. Instead, we just rely on the collection of a boarding pass as proof someone has left. Congress wanted to change that so we had better data on travelers coming in and out, and many feared we’d see yet another painful checkpoint. That is fortunately not the path Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is pursuing. Instead, the exit process can be embedded in the boarding of the aircraft. Even more surprising, it can actually make boarding an aircraft quicker and easier.

There are a variety of boarding gates being tested out there today, but this particular one at gate 152 was built by Vision-Box. The four boarding positions are enabled once the flight is ready for boarding. Travelers walk up and look into the camera with the unit automatically adjusting the camera up and down to match height. That’s when the technology starts to get magical. CBP has a vast database of photos from every time a traveler comes into the US. US passport holders also have their passport photos, Global Entry photos, etc. So when the camera looks at the traveler’s face, it sends the data to CBP and CBP’s computers get to work to find a match. If there is a match, the person is noted as leaving the country, and the gate opens.

In previous tests, the traveler then steps through the gate and hands over a boarding pass, but BA has gone one step further. When CBP clears the traveler, there is a token sent to BA which then is translated into determining if the person actually is booked on that flight. If so, the gate opens and the person can just walk right on the airplane. Here’s about a minute’s worth of footage I took showing the boarding process.

As you can see, the process takes only a few seconds but time can vary. Those people having more/better photos in the database get cleared more quickly than those with limited history. Long hair, white t-shirt guy, for example, sailed right through. Meanwhile, Marty McFly and his red life preserver/vest never got through despite multiple tries. For the most part, it worked well, but there were several errors that required people to go around. (All children under 12 have to go around no matter what since they aren’t photographed entering the country.) Even with the errors, I counted that it took about 13 minutes to board that 787.

Does this save time? It does. On a regular international flight, the gate agent has to scan the boarding pass, look at the passport, and ensure that the names match and the photo is a good likeness. Sometimes people don’t have their boarding passes readily available. It can take time. This system ends up being much quicker, even with the brief delay on scanning. And for the passenger, it’s easy since all you need is your face. (You do have to show a passport somewhere at check-in since the arrival country is going to require that you have it… for now.)

With the government requiring this biometric exit process, it’s now just a matter of who ends up paying for all the technology. It’s not cheap, but considering the primary push is coming from Congress, you’d think the feds would pony up the funds, or at least most of it. That’ll have to be worked out, but no matter what, this is going to be coming to an airport near you. I see absolutely no issue with a country keeping better track of who is coming in and out with technology like this. And considering it makes things more convenient and faster, I’m not complaining at all.

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64 comments on “Biometric Boarding is Coming Whether You Like It Or Not (and You Should Like It)

  1. Passports came into widespread use during and after WWI. Don’t ever let a crisis go to waste.

    The more tricks these people use to “keep us safe” really just are meant to show who’s the boss.

    If someone is traveling on private property (airplane) ostensibly to other private property, such as a hotel, job, house, tourist attraction, why does any government care about invisible lines.

    If someone causes harm, deal with them. If someone causes commerce, we shouldn’t be placing barriers. The Wall will never be 50,000 feet.

    1. It’s odd that most of the people willing to comment have similar views to mine. Rather than just downvotes, I’d like a point-by-point rebuttal to my points. You might persuade me I’m overreacting.

      Or do closed borders equal closed minds? Does advocating AI doing processing mean you’ve powered down your own ability to process? Or should we just get on board?

      1. I think its a better way to manage our exit immigration policies, which absolutely SUCK in the US compared to even The Bahamas. A friend got fined overstaying his visa down in Argentina, and I got busted for working in the Bahamas (tradeshow) when I should have been on a business visa (person who ‘busted’ me is someone who has known me for 15+ years, and at first I thought she was joking.. thankfully the tradeshow was at the marina, which was also a port of entry, so she made me go over, fill out the form, pay the tax, and continue working – then later we shared some kaliks together).

        Laws are laws for a reason. Some in the US don’t believe in borders, and that’s fine, that’s your belief. Even most of my friends in Canada support a border between the US & Canada, despite sharing many items of common-nationality interests. Except for the french language. And all-dressed chips. And kinder eggs.

        1. > A friend got fined overstaying his visa down in Argentina

          Was that when he was leaving the country, or trying to? In my experience (granted, this was 2007 and 2009) immigration and customs when you **arrive** in Argentina is a bit of a joke. Get your passport stamped at immigration, then follow the line of people walking right past the customs guy sleeping or playing on his phone next to the X-ray machine with a velvet rope in front of it. I can see how Argentina might be a little more strict on travelers leaving the country, though, as they always want to get the mandatory payment when you leave, and how the Argentine authorities might try to hit people with a legit fine on the way out. These days they are probably also looking for evidence of people smuggling money in/out of the country as well.

          I will say that the Argentine land border patrol (forget what it is called) is no joke; I had a few buses boarded by them as I was traveling near Argentina’s northern land border, and they picked up on the fact that I left Argentina and returned the same day and asked me about it. They also pulled 1 or 2 people off my bus so that they could question those travelers a bit further; presumably those travelers caught the next bus heading in the same direction after they were cleared by the authorities.

          Chile’s customs and immigration people were very professional and very thorough in my experience, and I heard the same from other travelers.

        1. Why does the United States government have any need to know that Joe Six Pack is leaving his house, getting on an airplane, and going to private property in a foreign land?

          It brings up the larger issue: If you are causing no harm, why do you need permission to enter a foreign country? If you are being invited to spend money to stay at a hotel, what business is that of any government?

          Regarding laws are laws for a reason: What is the reason here in Indiana that I can’t buy cold beer except at a convenience store, and can’t buy any booze on Sunday? Is that reasonable?

          Passports are how things have always been done could be one (thin) reason, but they only came into widespread use fairly recently. Is it progress to be more controlled, especially by some entity that “shutsdown” every couple of years?

          1. Because the people of said foreign country have decided that they want to have te choice of denying you access to their country, You are, of course, welcome to work on changing the minds of the people in your own country. Give #45 a tweet or call :)

            1. Oliver, let me try this way. Is adding exit controls hyper-nationalistic or globalistic? Assuming the next step with these types of controls through fairly uniform technology globally, and pre-clearance, etc., is that you only pass through the “border”, once, upon exit? I see some reason to require a passport to get back to your own country. I see some reason for a visa (with passport acting as that automatically in many cases) to get “invited” into another one. But if this technology march is essentially unifying it all, why the purpose for a nation-based document when the purpose is to identity the acceptable global citizen?

              Another tangent: If “bad” people want to leave, shouldn’t we encourage that (from national perspective)?

            2. No one’s being stopped from leaving. This is simply an easy way for the government to match people leaving to people coming in. This will help catch bad people trying to leave the country; so if you could stop sipping on your bud light for a second and realize that the government having more information on its citizens and people visiting the country is a good thing and not a bad thing, that’d be great.

  2. I’m not crazy about the idea but can see it coming.
    However, records used to be kept, or at least there was an attempt to keep records. All airlines were required to remove the ubiquitous I-94 from all (foreign) passports or to obtain a completed I-94 from permanent residents. The airline performed that function on behalf of U.S. Immigration (as it was back then). The I-94’s were then bundled with a summary form detailing how many ‘aliens’ (what an awful word!) and total passengers were on the flight, and these were handed in to the U.S. Immigration office.
    It was years later when I learned what Immigration did with these forms! Precisely nothing! They threw them out!

    1. They were recorded into a database and then thrown out. No its all done through flight manifests. If you need that information its still there from 80’s

    2. For some reason, I think our recap form said “USC” and “nonUSC” on them. I’ve had to handle a bunch of these before, and as the follow-up poster mentioned, they were entered into a database. I know in FLL they had 2 clerks doing just that.

    3. They recorded when particular “alien” left the great USofA.
      And when this person applied for the visa next time, they could see whether she or he overstated their welcome in the country.

    4. Ok but the I-94W form is long gone for we foreigners from Visa-Waiver countries. Now we have to apply for an ESTA which involves paying the US government for the right to enter the US and we have to answer a raft of questions. If you have to answer yes to any of them, you have to apply for a regular US Visa. Part of the process for a regular visa is a personal interview which is a real pain if you don’t live where a US embassy or consulate is. US immigration requirements are among the more xenophobic policies in the world.

    5. When I lived and worked in Japan, I had to apply for and carry an ‘Alien Registration Card’

  3. New Zealand has a similar setup for entering and exiting the country, but not as cool as at the boarding gate.

    1. This is a totally disingenuous piece without any of the facts behind what this takes. This whole visionbox setup is a monstrosity and most gates around the nation where an international flight could possibly depart from don’t have the real estate to accommodate this process. What you don’t know is that CBP gets a tremendous about of data from the airlines when the check-in window opens till it closes. Total waste of money for taxpayers, travelers, airlines and airports!

    1. I had this “experience” in Singapore exiting through the passport control to get to the gates. Took three tries and my sister had to go off to a desk on the side to be cleared……so, no, it’s not terrific. We had absolutely nothing wrong with doing what they told us (over and over), now holding up others. What a waste of time – Just look at me and my passport for heaven sakes !!!

  4. This is a big step towards getting rid of passports entirely. And I welcome it. What a stupid item to have to use move about the planet. I thought that it would be done with fingerprints, but here we are still using this ridiculous booklet.

    1. Unless countries are sharing data about their citizens freely with every other country, you will still need a passport to ENTER a foreign country.

      1. It would be quite simple to share that information electronically, if done reciprocally, versus the travel giving the same info to the foreign country upon arrival. I see biometrics having virtually unlimited capabilities. If you can connect boarding pass data and border control/exit data together, why not link passport and visa info? Perhaps there are reasons beyond my realm of thinking that this is not already done.

    2. Couldn’t disagree more; my passport is my favourite inanimate object (my fixed gear bike being my second favourite) – it symbolises freedom, escape, adventure, open-mindedness (bit like the bike, does :) ). I’ve had my own passport since I was 9 (before then, children used to be added to their parent’s passport, in the UK). I would hate to be without mine.

  5. It does seem a shade of “big brother” with hints of Orson Welles but not so much different than passport control when entering the country. People freely share much more openly on social media so I doubt many will bat an eye at this, although I wish we could live in a society where this wasn’t necessary. Speedy boarding is nice but on an LAX-LHR length flight I’m not worried about adding 15 minutes to boarding for the personal touch.

    1. I think you meant George Orwell and not Orson Welles – unless CBP sells no wine before it’s time….

      1. Yes sir, 1984 – George Orwell, not War of the Worlds…although this technology does identify aliens, does it not?

  6. Are air travelers even a majority of people leaving the US every day? I don’t know the numbers, but I would guess that land border crossings are comparable or larger in number. Wikipedia says (with two citations) that there are 350 million legal crossings of the US-Mexico land border. JFK has 31 million international departures; no other US airport is in the top 25 worldwide for international departures.

    I just don’t see how the US could verify who is leaving by land without setting up border checkpoints. So what is the point of checking who leaves by land? They’re not going to get close to counting everyone.

    1. On the US-Canada land border (not sure about air and sea), both countries now share data such that entry into one country is recorded as exit from the other country, effectively making Canadian entry immigration a de fact US exit immigration (and vice versa). I believe the data shared is only for non-citizens of either Canada or the US, but I may be wrong in that regard. All that to say, it’s possible. And the US has already done it with Canada, so they’ve only got one more land border to work out a deal at. Not that Trump’s too keen on cutting deals with Mexico on immigration…

  7. How does this systems work with BA’s irritating hierarchy for boarding – ie. the more you pay, the sooner you board? Do the gates refuse to let riff-raff pass until all the first and business class passengers are known to have have passed through?

    1. It doesn’t appear to do anything about the riff-raff who usually get in the way of the elites while waiting for their high-number group to be called for boarding. That’d be a good application for robotics — little R2D2s with electric cattle prods, maybe? Looks like it’s just another way for airlines to minimize the number of humans they have to pay to get a flight out. It won’t be long before the only differentiation between airlines will be whether you get to see an occasional human or a video of an airline rep during the course of a trip. Then come suspended-animation injections and being piled like cordwood on airliners without seats. <>

    2. I would assume they don’t. I don’t think even airlines’ own computers enforce boarding groups when scanning boarding passes, instead leaving it up to the agents boarding the flight.

    3. Robin – No, there aren’t any technological barriers right looking at boarding group at this point. They’ve apparently tested things and found that the fewer barriers, the better. Instead, there’s one person standing at the entrance guiding people to the machines. So someone is only allowing people through to the machines based on their group number.

  8. Installing these cameras may be feasible at TBIT, probably the closest thing in the US to a purely international terminal (though there are domestic flights out of even TBIT). But could it ever be feasible at all the gates that handle international departures in the US? Even widebody-capable gates at major US international airports handle more domestic departures than international departures, and of course any gate can and does have departures to Canada. Even non-international airports (notably DCA and LGA, but I think there are also small regional airports with Canada service) have a fair number of international departures.

    So for this to work at scale, they’d have to implement it at virtually every gate in the US, unless the airlines want to have their operations restricted by saying that international flights (including regional jets flying to Canada) can only depart out of a handful of gates.

    Not to mention the issues others have raised with space. Yeah, there’s room in brand-new TBIT, which has only widebody gates with ample waiting space. What about the cramped Horizon gates at SEA, where many flights to Canada depart? Or all sorts of other crowded gate areas?

    It seems like a far easier solution would be for the airlines to transmit the passport information for every departing international passenger to DHS, since they have to scan passports at some point anyway. The only potential drawback is people with multiple passports who use one passport to enter the US and another to enter the country they’re traveling to. But this system would already miss all the people leaving the country by land or sea anyway, so I wouldn’t be concerned about that level of leakage.

    1. So Congress wants to know who is leaving the country? Can’t be done. Complete waste of money. Just drive across the border to Canada – no U.S. exit check of any kind – and fly out of Canada. Most people won’t bother, of course, why would they? But for anybody who really doesn’t want Uncle Sam to know they have gone, there must be plenty motivation to do just that.

      1. Would presumably be pretty easy to install exit controls at border checkpoints. Of course, then you also have to secure the border with a 50ft wall

  9. Having been through multiple passport exit controls, this is probably the most technologically slick solution.

    I guess the question is – what happens when the person is confirmed by CBP, but not booked on the flight (because they were at the wrong gate, stowaway, etc.)? Are they then marked as exited the country, even though they are not boarding?

  10. Agreed with others below. What’s being sold as “convenience” is really about control (and reminding everyone who’s in it). And You know god*amn well that there’s a kickback involved in the construction and implementation of this technology. That’s the REAL story we’ll probably never hear anything about.

  11. “Sometimes people don’t have their boarding passes readily available.”

    BA in my experience has a FA check boarding passes at the aircraft door. And on other airlines people often arrive on board and have no idea what seat they are in, then start pulling out the boarding pass again, and try to find their seat number while pulling down their roll aboard down the aisle and bashing seated passengers in the head with the backpack hanging off one shoulder.

    I assume the plan is to ultimately no longer issue paper boarding passes, but people will still need to get the information provided by the boarding passes (which gate, boarding time, seat number, …). So electronic BPs (maybe called something else if they are not a “pass” anymore) will presumably continue to exist.

  12. Sorry but it will just become another “TSA” experience with employees shouting on the side what to do, getting louder (and more annoyed) with each one second delay. I hate this stuff – why does everything in this world have to become an “electronic” experience ? Keep some human element in the game.

  13. If they’re going to do this at gates then they should do this at TSA checkpoints or eliminate the TSA altogether. What the hell is the point of having a human scan you before you go to a robot that scans you again ?

    1. Now that you mention it, I’m surprised that the TSA PreCheck lanes for airport security don’t have something similar to this. Scan your boarding pass and thumb print, and have the gate open for you to go to the X-ray conveyor belt and metal detector. Put a TSA PreCheck gate right next to the other gates so that a regular TSA ID-checker can help in the event of issues.

      If necessary, take pictures of a traveler’s face and send it to a TSA guy in an office to compare it against their TSA PreCheck photo, while the traveller goes on through… As long as the TSA guy comparing faces raises the red flag in 30-60 seconds, they will have plenty of time to pull the traveler aside before the traveler leaves the security checkpoint.

      Then again, the TSA will never do something like this, simply because it doesn’t “FEEL safe”, and because they realize that half their mission is to keep travelers calm and complacent by making security theater inconvenient enough for it to feel safe.

  14. I see this just another way to inconvenient the 90% law abiding citizen, cause at the end, the 10% that overstaying their visa would never go thru those gate. I guess that’s world we live in.

  15. How soon will it be before the govt will require each of us to have a chip imbedded at birth…no, at conception or an acceptable time thereafter, so all the goodies of life–security, control, borders, controlled airplane boarding, maintenance of ethnic purity and human perfection, and of course, assurance of birth, will be preserved for each of us. Annual checks, prescribed like auto inspections, or just unannounced checks, like the water company driving around to read the water meters, ensuring the undocumented and undesirables are taken away.

    Foreigners wishing to visit our country would have to agree to have a chip imbedded, or certificate in lieu of, before arriving in our fair land. We can no longer take this stuff for granted in these troubled times! Technology, grab it!

    1. Ooh, let’s take this one step further and have the chip embedded in foreigners emit a locator signal to the INS when they overstay their Visa. The way they can be dragged kicking and screaming out of the country.

  16. My concern isn’t big brother. It’s bad IT practices. All it takes is one weak link and now my biometrics, which aren’t changeable, are stolen. What happens then?

  17. As someone that has passed through LAX’s “automated” passport control several times with an infant, I can tell you that this type of machine will be a massive nuisance for anyone traveling with an infant that they would like to keep sleeping, or any number of children. It’s always a pain to get them to the right height, get them to stay still, or wake them up to open their eyes, etc. Your video shows lots of single travelers strolling casually through, but we all know that’s absolutely not how it’s going to work in real life. One family will block 3 of those gates, and then the rest of the people will be like the guy in the red vest that takes about 5 tries and then ends up having to get help.

      1. Good to know… Hopefully they will be prepared with that and pull travelers with children aside to process them more efficiently. I think my comment was more directed at how poorly the automated process works currently. I know this is different in theory, but I think a huge factor is going to be the staff and how they are able to clearly and efficiently move passengers through this process.

  18. Cranky,

    Is this not just an extension (improvement) of the technology that has been in use in the UK / Europe for some years now with automated passport control when entering the country – slap your passport down onto the screen and look at the camera, doors open or close if there is a match – why the US have not got this is beyond me as its so quick.

    Expat Nick

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    1. Nick – The US has an automated passport control system, but I’m not familiar with exact details. In the UK, is it actually doing facial recognition or is it simply scanning the passport and taking a photo? I believe that’s how it works for US citizens in the US.

      1. Cranky,

        I’m not sure of the details either for the UK system, but it’s a combination of passport being correct all the biometrics and that the picture matches who you are in that data base in the sky, and if the two-pass muster then your good – they had some early issues years ago with the chip that was imbedded in the passport not always working but all good now. Assuming no line its takes about 30-40-seconds, from when you step up to being allowed in. I don’t have a US passport even though I have been here for 21 years, and I use Global Entry when I come back to the US and that works very well nand worth every dime.


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