by Greg Dickinson, The Telegraph, May 17, 2018
Not long ago the process of boarding a flight involved interacting with at least three people: one at the check-in desk, another to inspect your boarding pass before security, and then a final passport and ticket confirmation at the gate.
But in recent years the human interaction involved in negotiating an airport has been stripped right back.
Today we book our tickets online, check ourselves in, tag our own checked baggage, scan our own boarding passes and get security checked by a full-body scanner.
And now, as easyJet quietly trials fully autonomous facial-recognition self-boarding - the first time such technology has been applied on international flights from the UK - the last vestige of human interaction during the boarding process is set to disappear.
The budget airline's trial marks a new era for travel, and while it and Gatwick have so far remained quiet about the trial - I experienced this in action on a recent flight from the West Sussex airport.
The initial scan takes place at kiosks near bag drop at the departure terminal. You scan your boarding pass and then your passport, before a photo is taken - at this point, biometric technology automatically compares your photo to your passport. The gate opens.
Then, after going through security and arriving at the gate, you scan your boarding pass at the self-boarding barrier (in my instance, Gate 107 in the North Terminal). Here another image is captured, at which point your identity is verified. The gate opens again, ushering you through to the waiting area before boarding the flight.
A handful of airlines have trialled similar self-boarding technologies in recent years.
All domestic British Airways flights leaving from Heathrow Terminal 5 are now boarded using a similar biometric process as the one easyJet is trialling - with more than one million passengers using the technology in the last year. BA does not currently use self-boarding on international flights departing from the UK, but a spokesperson confirmed this is an ambition further down the line.
The technology across the Atlantic is even more futuristic. BA has trialled entirely document-free, facial recognition boarding on international flights at Los Angeles and Orlando, with the process soon to reach New York's JFK. This is the first time any airline has enabled passengers to board a flight without scanning a ticket or passport - you board using face only.
But would you feel safe boarding a flight knowing that the people around you have had their identity checked only by a robot, not a human?
We caught up with easyJet and British Airways to get to the bottom of how self-boarding works, and what it could mean for the future of flying.
How exactly does the technology work?
“The technology verifies each customer’s identity along with their passport in conjunction with customers’ booking details and creates a new biometric token that means they can just use their face to board the aircraft,” a spokesman for easyJet said.
“By doing this we are seeking to enhance our passengers experience by making their boarding easier and quicker.”
British Airways compares its technology to that built into mobile phones. In a statement, the airline said: “The biometric e-Gates use high-definition camera technology, and allow customers to pass through by recognising their unique facial features and matching them with the passport, visa or immigration photos."
Is facial technology 100 per cent accurate?
The British Airways spokesperson tells me that a biometric facial scan is a bit like taking a fingerprint - taking a map of your unique facial characteristics. Presumably, then, even more accurate than a border official playing spot-the-difference between your photos.
However, recent reports suggest that facial recognition technology is not always as accurate as we once thought. During the Metropolitan Police's trial of facial technology at the Notting Hill carnival last summer, a young woman was reportedly matched with a balding man on the police database. In the US, the FBI's facial recognition technology has been reported to regularly misidentify women and people of colour.
Of course, different agencies around the world use different facial-recognition software for different purposes, and the tech being rolled out at airports is the most up-to-date available.
Is it a human or computer checking the passport image?
“The computer checks for an exact match between the person in front of it and the image on the passport. If it isn’t exact then a person performs the check,” the easyJet spokesperson said.
A spokesperson for British Airways said that while the self-boarding is fully automated, there are still gate agents on-hand to help families with children, people with disabilities and vulnerable citizens - or anyone who just prefers a bit of human interaction.
Why has this been introduced?
“Once rolled out, the aim is to eliminate queues at the boarding gates because multiple machines can be installed which passengers can use at one time,” the easyJet spokesperson said.
“The technology, which is currently being trialled, would create a far more seamless airport journey for passengers enabling them to progress through the airport to aircraft more quickly and easily.”
Will this reduce the need for as many members of staff?
“No this is not the aim of the technology - it is about providing our people and our passengers with the latest in innovative solutions to improve our passengers' experience through the airport,” easyJet confirmed.
British Airways also stressed that the aim is not to reduce staff, although as the technology improves it is easy to imagine a situation a bit like at self-service checkouts in supermarkets, where the staff has been reduced to one person assisting a number of kiosks.
What are the benefits of self-boarding using facial recognition?
While easyJet is yet to have analysed its findings, if British Airways’ results are anything to go by, it should be good news. BA has reported that boarding punctuality has increased by 10 per cent since introducing domestic self-boarding. On its international biometric boarding gates at Los Angeles Airport, one flight with more than 400 customers was boarded in 22 minutes, less than half the time it takes normally.