International travelers flying out of Atlanta can now check in for a Delta flight, go through security and board a plane using facial recognition instead of showing their passports.
On Thursday, Delta Air Lines unveiled new facial recognition cameras that the company says will shorten traveler wait times at the international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson.
Eventually, Delta wants to implement the technology for domestic flights, though widespread use could be years away. Still, some privacy advocates warn there aren’t enough safeguards in place to protect passengers’ privacy.
The cameras are now in use at Delta’s international check-in, at the security checkpoint in the international terminal and on international Concourse F, making up what Atlanta-based Delta calls the first “biometric terminal” in the United States.
The aim is to make the airport more convenient and less of a hassle by eliminating the need for travelers to pull out passports and boarding passes.
“We know our customers like it,” said Delta chief operating officer Gil West. “It saves them time.”
During boarding, the cameras will use facial recognition technology that will save an average of 2 seconds per passenger, or a total of 9 minutes for boarding of a wide-body plane, according to the airline.
West said the airline has invested “millions, but it’s worth it.” Still, it’s not yet a seamless process throughout the international terminal.
For about 1 to 2 percent of passengers, the facial scan can’t be matched with the passport photo on file. They still might need to scan a passport if it’s not already in the system. Not all international gates have the cameras yet. And for now, all fliers still need to show their boarding pass at the TSA checkpoint.
Delta has been installing the cameras in the international terminal since mid-October, to get the system fully in place by Saturday. The Transportation Security Administration began using facial recognition at the Atlanta airport international terminal checkpoint for international travelers on all airlines last month. TSA, which has drawn up a roadmap for expanding biometrics technology, in September began requiring a photo when PreCheck members renew or enroll, and plans to test facial biometric technology at PreCheck lanes.
Delta said about 25,000 customers travel through the international terminal a week, and so far less than 2 percent are opting out of facial recognition.
Next, Delta plans to deploy facial recognition to all of its international gates at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport, and roll it out throughout other points in the Detroit terminal in 2019. Eventually, Delta aims to expand facial recognition to its other hubs in the United States.
Potentially, West said he would like to see facial recognition technology expanded to domestic travel — but that’s trickier because facial images are matched to U.S. Customs and Border Protection databases drawn from passports and visas, while driver license data is spread out among individual states.
Over the last few years, the airline has tested facial recognition during boarding tests at its hubs in Atlanta, Detroit and at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, and tested a biometric bag drop at its Minneapolis hub.
“It’s not surprising with technology these days that this is the way we’re going,” said traveler Dave Campbell, waiting at Hartsfield-Jackson for a flight to Mexico on Thursday. “I just hope they’ve done the work on it and it’s secure.”
Delta says it does not store the images, and only uses them to compare to the database kept by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
CBP has also partnered with other airlines and airports on biometric boarding to comply with a Congressional mandate to develop a biometric entry and exit system.
“We’re really solving this complicated security mandate by focusing on the traveler experience,” said CBP deputy executive assistant commissioner John Wagner. “You’re walking up and not fumbling with paperwork.”
Wagner said the technology also improves security — helping to detect three imposters whose faces did not match the passports they presented at Washington Dulles airport, and detecting thousands of travelers who have overstayed their visas.
Some privacy advocates have warned of security risks of facial recognition deployed in airports.
A senior staff attorney with digital rights nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, Jennifer Lynch, has said she is wary of facial recognition, and sees a threat to privacy, “our constitutional ‘right to travel’ and right to anonymous association.” And she said the greatest concern is the risk of a data breach.
CBP, which has been testing facial recognition at Hartsfield-Jackson since 2016, says it does not retain photos of U.S. citizens once their identities have been verified, though it retains photos of non-citizens for up to 14 days, and retains records for non-U.S. citizen visitors for 75 years.
CBP in October expanded facial recognition for arriving passengers and has cut the need for automated passport control kiosks.
The passport control kiosks, considered innovative technology when they were installed just four years ago for $4.2 million, are owned by Hartsfield-Jackson, which is “in discussions to determine how best to utilize this equipment,” said spokesman Andrew Gobeil.