There is no doubt that biometric tokens have the potential to fundamentally change the travel experience for passengers – for the better, in many cases.

The seamless journey potentially created by such technology also brings many tempting opportunities for airlines and airports to use biometric data for commercial gain. Indeed, carriers and systems providers are already working on concepts and solutions with that in mind.

Before jumping at those commercial opportunities, however, stakeholders might do well to consider recent controversies over the handling of personal data, not least involving Facebook.

It is undeniably a positive development that biometrics could see passengers boarding an aircraft without needing to navigate the physical barriers and queues that are hallmarks of today's airport journey. Even the idea of a digital boarding pass would look outdated – your face being enough for systems to recognise who you are, where you are meant to be, and at what time. That could make airports much more palatable places to spend time (and money) and could also have security benefits.

On top of that, tokens offer potential advantages such as enabling the completion of immigration pre-clearance procedures while on board an aircraft.

But while those benefits might make biometric tokens an easy sell to passengers, the outlook changes once businesses consider using them to create a "dynamic personalisation" experience.

The prize for airlines and airports is significant. If they are able to use biometrics and related data to customise every passenger's experience, more revenue is likely to be heading their way.

Take, for example, shopping. Personal data might be used to make a special deal pop up on someone’s phone as they walk past an airport shop – based on recognition through biometrics. On board the aircraft, the IFE system might use someone’s biometric identity and related data to suggest films, food and drink. It might also take a guess at what trips someone might want to consider when they arrive at their destination.

Once a passenger has been convinced to part with their money, a biometric token would authenticate payment. That token might then prove someone’s identity when picking up a hire car, or checking into a hotel.


It is with this commercial use of biometric data, however, that the waters get muddied. Selling to passengers the idea of simplifying the airport experience and improving security through biometric tokens is one thing. Using that capability as a commercial tool based on an ever-growing database of personal data is another entirely – and it should be treated with the sensitivity that such a distinction deserves.

With controversy around the use of personal data topping news agendas, people are understandably jumpy about how much of their information is being stored, shared and exploited in ways only tenuously linked to their justifications for giving it away in the first place.

Passengers cannot feel like they are being tricked into handing over incredibly sensitive data for security purposes, only for them to see it being used commercially. It is not good enough to bury someone’s consent within myriad terms and conditions, either.

Furthermore, the sharing and storage of personal data by multiple stakeholders across multiple jurisdictions and sectors is potentially problematic. Such mechanisms – required to make significant biometrics-related commercial propositions viable – need to be fail-safe with clear lines of accountability.

Also complicating the roll-out of biometrics for commercial use is the "big brother" nature of computers recognising individuals via physical attributes at multiple points during journeys. It remains to be seen if this will be an intrusion too far for some people.

A logical course of action is to ensure separation between talk of the seamless airport experience and commercially motivated "dynamic personalisation". While the former takes off and users see the benefits, work can continue on creating a compelling, and watertight, case for the latter.

Source: Cirium Dashboard