The Biometric Future of Travel: Will Everyone Be Fingerprinted to Fly, or Will No One?

Alaska Airlines wants to scan your fingerprints at check-in:

The sixth largest airline in the U.S. is pushing for shorter lines at the airport by scanning your fingerprint. It wants to replace travel documents like passport and driver’s license to let flyers get through check-in quicker. The airline says it has been testing a pilot program since August and is in the process of convincing the TSA that biometrics is safe.

At the same time, the TSA has been under immense pressure to move more and more passengers through a trusted traveler process. They claim they meet that with 50% of travelers eligible for precheck, a figure that includes crew and not just passengers.

They seem themselves as having tapped out the retail signup market, or at least being limited through those channels to arithmetric growth, and are looking to private companies to grow the PreCheck enterprise – some of whom see the key to success as eliminating the need for fingerprinting.

One sticking point for some would-be contractors is a planned requirement to collect fingerprint data, which can only be done in person. The ease of applying entirely online would likely attract far more applicants than a process that requires making an appointment and showing up to be fingerprinted. The president of likely bidder Eid Passport, James Robell, told the Wall Street Journal’s Scott McCartney that the potential market could be 10 million without the fingerprint requirement, but only 10% of that with fingerprinting. Robell said that industry has developed other ways to validate identity without using biometrics. I’ve also been told that it is possible to do criminal history checks without having a person’s fingerprints.

Either your papers will no longer be enough to fly in the future — or there will be so much data out there about you that your biometrics won’t be necessary. My own hunch – and it’s just a function of my priors more than anything else — is that biometrics won’t actually be necessary but at some point will be required anyway.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I think the concept is great……a little concerned because I am a swimmer and we have perennially tough scans but if the technology is there we absolutely should go there……………

  2. Gary
    They do this biometrics now for those applying for tourist visas for the usa, eu and the uk.
    I think your latter prediction will be what happens. Passport Papers with biometrics for tourists and resident cards and biometrics for citizens going home.

  3. Way behind the curve. It’s 2014 and we let people cross borders based on small pieces of paper with ink stamps on them.

  4. Anything that makes the airport process faster is good news.

    Americans have this pig-headed aversion of the concept of fingerprinting, because it’s supposed to be for criminals. It’s completely cultural. Try going to Japan with a tattoo instead and try going to a hot sprint resort instead. Now see who’s treated like a criminal.

    Did you use to think it’d be preposterous to pay $100 and give the government your biometric data? Now, you can’t live without Global Entry and the bonus TSA Pre✓ that comes with it. You’ll fight tooth and nail if they try to take away your Global Entry and TSA Pre✓ now.

  5. Why the hell aren’t they using the facial biometrics already embedded in passports rather than messing around with a separate fingerprint system?

  6. Ed hit the nail on the head. Fingerprints are a poor biometric for airports because they require physical checkpoints to verify them. Using facial biometrics as we already capture in passports would allow passengers to travel through the airport without stopping. Forget boarding pass checks – just load the biometric photo into systems at the airport and verify with cameras as you walk through security, immigration and the gate.

    I note that what I’ve described is the IATA future state and part of what they are working towards for the future passenger experience.

  7. @David If you’re going to have a system that doesn’t involve a checkpoint of any kind (i.e people don’t have to stop) how do you deal with those wearing headscarves, caps, hats, sunglasses etc… which can impede recognition software? Wouldn’t you have to have some sort of checkpoint to deal with cases like these?

  8. If we can require people to remove their shoes, we can require them to remove their “headscarves, caps, hats, sunglasses etc”.

    Casinos have been using this technology for years now to identify cheaters and rip off artists who have been banned from entry. It even identifies people wearing not only sunglasses, but fake beards and heavy makeup.

    And yet the Federal government isn’t even thinking about it yet.

  9. Amazing that everyone here is in favor. Really this is more about collecting your personal data, and later selling it to someone to make money. Oh, it won’t be sold like that at first but just like what google and FB do that is where they would like to go. Both the travel companies and the government would like to sell or monterize new frontiers and personal data is the hot one today.

  10. @wow its less about collecting personal data and more about effectively utilising data they already have (facial biometrics on passports)

  11. Flew Alaska last week on the newish SEA-BWI flight. It was the first time I’ve ever encountered a random ID check by TSA for all pax boarding. To be honest, it made me a little nervous something suspcious was awry.

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