Alongside travel, another one of my passions is technology, and thus was really interested in an announcement by Delta about partnering with a company called CLEAR, to use biometrics as a boarding pass at Washington Reagan National Airport.

I think this development provides tangible evidence of a wider public acceptance of using biometrics both in travel and every day life.

A short history of biometrics in travel

The use of biometrics by governments in travel is nothing new.  The UK Government ran a scheme for many years for frequent travellers called IRIS.  It was truly excellent and a boon for frequent traveller entering the UK.  It was open to anyone with an EU passport or indefinite leave to remain.  You registered at one of the enrolment stations where they took a scan of your eyes and recorded your right to enter the UK.

To use the system, you walked up to one of the booths, it scanned your eyes, and then allowed you entry to the United Kingdom.  What was even better is that it wasn’t linked to your passport (just your right to enter), so when your passport expired and you got a new one, it kept working.

I believe there were a number of technology issues over the life of the programme, particularly around database scalability, however it was shuttered a few years ago when the current e-Gates which didn’t require pre-enrolment were rolled out to everyone.

In addition to the UK programme, the US Department for Homeland Security have the excellent Global Entry programme for screening frequent travellers to the US.  It requires a number of background checks, and then in-person interview, where they will take your fingerprints.  At the same time, you’re also enrolled for the TSA PreCheck programme.  This allows expedited security checks for travellers deemed to be lower risk.

For Global Entry members, when entering the US, they’re directed to a kiosk, where their identity is validated by a passport scan and their fingerprints.  There may of course be questioning by the Customs and Border Protection personnel as well.

The Delta trial

So it’s interesting to see Delta partnering with CLEAR to expand this further.

Again, automation at the boarding gates is nothing new.  Lufthansa for example at it’s German hubs have used automated boarding gates for many years on flights to and from Schengen countries.  United airlines uses them for US domestic flights as well.  British Airways is trialling them for domestic flights at Heathrow.

What’s common amongst all of these is that they’re only for domestic flights where document checks aren’t required and they continue to rely on the QR code on your boarding pass.

With this trial, Delta is taking a further small step and removing the QR code and the boarding pass entirely.  As far as passenger experience goes, I think this is a small improvement, but certainly not as far as one could go.  Their short-term goal is also to use this at check-in desks to further validate the identity of the passenger there as well.

I also find it interesting to note that they’re partnering with CLEAR on this.  They’ve not publicly disclosed how it all would work, but my guess is that Delta aren’t holding the fingerprint data.  I would surmise there’s some kind of identity federation between Delta and CLEAR using a SkyMiles number.


For a truly seamless passenger experience it should be entirely possible to link one’s biometrics, to one’s identity and immigration status.  This may seem big-brother-like, but is no more data than governments’ already hold on us today.

In addition, to further engender trust, the process could use a method to validate our identity that we use many times a day – the smartphone.

iOS users are used to using Touch ID to unlock our smartphones and pay for goods and services using ApplePay day in, day out.

Using the same mechanism, after an enrolment process (possibly a dedicated app), this plus wireless technologies like Bluetooth and identity federation could be used to identify yourself at an airline desk, at the security checkpoint, at the boarding gate, and even at immigration upon arrival.

What’s even more appealing is that there wouldn’t need to be a big investment in dedicated fingerprint readers at all these locations.  After all, you’re carrying around one in your pocket.

Now, with Touch ID in it’s present incarnation, I’m sure isn’t as accurate as the dedicated fingerprint scanner on a Global Entry kiosk (for example) as that requires four fingers, versus just the one.  But it’s a great starting point to prove the concept.

It doesn’t even need to be your fingerprints.  Apple are rumoured to be moving to some kind of facial recognition in the upcoming iPhone 8.

The underlying principle is that you enrol using your smartphone, verify yourself with some kind of biometric identifier and then use industry standards to federate that identity to the airline or to immigration.  It’s all there today.

The challenge is making it secure, reliable and scalable, as well as the small matter of the business case.

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