by Thor Olavsrud

MWAA brings facial recognition to the airline boarding process

Jun 25, 20206 mins
CIO 100Digital TransformationEmerging Technology

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority is enabling paperless boarding via a biometric identity management system that uses facial recognition technology — no boarding pass or passport required.

Airport departure sign with airplane flying over
Credit: Thinkstock

In Washington, D.C., airports, and several other airports around the U.S., passengers can now use their face as a boarding pass and passport thanks to veriScan, a biometric identity management system that leverages facial recognition technology.

In 2018, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) approached the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) for help. CBP wanted MWAA to implement biometric verification of passengers leaving the U.S. on commercial flights.

“At that time, [CBP] were handling the biometric entry portion at U.S. airports, so veriScan was built to address departing passengers,” says Goutam Kundu, CIO at MWAA.

Since then, however, MWAA, which operates both Ronald Reagan International Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport, has started building out the veriScan biometric use case for other applications, including offering the platform to other airports around the country.

“Because my team works regularly with our airports to help improve both operations and the passenger journey, we already had a healthy understanding of existing and emerging business needs,” Kundu says. “These opportunities have also been validated by our airport peers, who share many of the same pain points.”

The homegrown approach

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the U.S. Congress mandated that the Secretary of Homeland Security develop a plan to implement an automated biometric entry and exit data system for the U.S. border, including the nation’s airports. CBP had implemented facial recognition technology at points of entry but sought MWAA’s help in meeting its biometric Air Exit standards. Kundu says MWAA needed a solution that was fast and easy to roll out, but also felt it was essential the solution would add to passengers’ experiences instead of hindering them.

“We wanted to avoid the high cost and cumbersome installation of added infrastructure such as e-gates or other proprietary technology that may not keep pace with the evolution of biometric technology and its related regulatory standards,” Kundu says. “Instead, we sought something that would meet our requirements in a minimally viable manner.”

Doing that required avoiding commercially available solutions, which typically require large-scale changes to physical infrastructure and large-footprint technology, all with a hefty price tag. Instead, MWAA built its own solution using Apple iPad Pros mounted on standalone mounts or articulated arms in the boarding area.

“The use of commercial hardware and equipment meant that everything could be easily and quickly procured,” Kundu says. “This makes deployment extremely quick. And because the tablet can be mounted using off-the-shelf equipment, veriScan is portable and flexible and works well for any airline’s existing boarding processes, regardless of the number of boarding lanes they may need, how they prefer to do things, or the existing real estate at the gate.”

MWAA’s innovations team, MWAA Labs, designed, tested, and implemented the platform, working with regulatory agencies, airline carriers, third-party integrators, and MWAA’s airport ops teams. The platform has earned MWAA a CIO 100 Award in IT Excellence.

The veriScan mobile application is installed on the tablets, which act as the system’s biometric scanners via Apple’s facial detection technology. When a passenger approaches, the tablet detects their face and captures, optimizes, and encrypts a photo. The application then transmits the photo to CBP’s Traveler Verification Service (TVS), which matches it against a CBP database of known traveler photos. The verification is nearly instantaneous, and the result is sent back to the veriScan system and displayed on the scanner, letting the passenger know whether they can proceed to boarding.

Kundu says this step replaces the need for passport verification at the gate. For airlines that have integrated their departure control system (DCS) with veriScan, the step also checks in the passenger at the same time, enabling a fully paperless boarding process.

Once boarding is complete, all data is purged from the veriScan system, ensuring no personally identifiable information (PII) is ever retained.

Banking on broader integration

The solution did, however, encounter issues connecting to some airlines’ legacy systems.

“We were surprised with the different data-communication methods used by various airlines,” Kundu says. “Not only where they very different, but some were still using antiquated methods most other carriers had since moved on from.”

As a result, the team had to work collaboratively with the airlines’ technical groups to design new ways to transmit the data necessary to complete the check-in process.

“We initially thought to provide a standard identity handshake, but many airlines preferred using their own IDM, so when they requested this, we were able to integrate our system with theirs,” Kundu says.

Kundu says the most challenging aspect of the project was making sure the team was building a solution with an eye to the future, all while working with stakeholders with differing priorities.

“We wanted a solution that made sense for the passenger, regardless of any touchpoint on the passenger’s airport journey,” Kundu says. “Today, the challenge is biometrics at the gate; tomorrow, it will be the entire curb-to-gate experience — biometrics at ticket counters, bag-drop, passenger lounges, concessions and more. To do so on this project required strong partnership and collaboration with both private and public entities, as well as regulatory stakeholders, and coming together with each of them to find a common framework that could work across all of these passenger touchpoints.”

The project has created a slew of opportunities for MWAA. It’s opened a new revenue stream as other airports across the country have licensed the platform. Internationally it has begun a pilot at Dublin International Airport. Kundu says the project has also led MWAA to develop relationships with the major DCS vendors to enable broader integration.

“Non-aeronautical revenue, a critical element of an airport’s financial viability, will continue to be a priority for all airports in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic and its far-reaching financial implications,” Kundu says.

Kundu says that for him the lesson is plain: Don’t allow yourself to be pigeonholed into believing the commercial market is the only option when faced with a business problem.

“If it’s mission critical and a strategic differentiator, put your best resources on it,” he says.