Delta Air Lines Tests Facial Recognition Technology In The Summer

Delta Air Lines Airbus A330-300 Enhanced

Delta Air Lines (DL) will be introducing four self-service bag drop machines at its Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) hub in Summer 2017 as part of an US$600,000 (May 15 Exchange Rate: ~£466,000, CDN$819,000, €547,000) investment on new seamless travel technology that will also include facial recognition for security and speed enhancements for customers.  


Delta Air Lines

The Atlanta based airline will be the first United States based carrier to implement facial recognition technology at one of four drop off machines.  “We expect this investment and new process to save customers time,” said Gareth Joyce, Delta’s Senior Vice President – Airport Customer Service and Cargo. “And, since customers can operate the biometric-based bag drop machine independently, we see a future where Delta agents will be freed up to seek out travellers and deliver more proactive and thoughtful customer service.”

Delta Air Lines Tests Facial Recognition Technology in Summer 2017
Facial Recognition Technology at Self-Drop Off Source: Delta Air Lines


How Does It Work?

Delta Air Lines operates its third biggest hub at MSP and has 14 international destinations spanning North America, Asia and Europe. It is mandatory for passengers travelling to these destinations to have their passports as part of the entry requirements. As such, they would likely be the target demographic to use this technology over passengers who could use an identification card to board domestic US flights.

Delta Air Lines Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) International Network (April 2017)
Delta Air Lines Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) International Network (April 2017) Source: Airline Website

The kiosk used by Delta Air Lines will be installed with a digital camera at the front. Passengers who already checked in online will be asked to insert their passports for scanning. At this point, a snapshot would be taken and the facial recognition technology will attempt to match the passenger’s passport to this image. After the match is confirmed, passengers would be able to print the baggage tags and drop them off to a belt. Delta spokesperson has confirmed to Engadget that the images won’t be stored. “The technology will compare your passport photo to the face in front of the camera, confirm the match and delete immediately.”

The new process is part of an automated suite of technology from radio frequency identification technology used in baggage tags to check-in via online / Fly Delta mobile application that aim to streamline and speed up the check-in process and improve overall customer satisfaction.

Other Examples and Potential Challenges

Many airports and airlines have deployed bio-metric technology for passenger screening within the last five years. Most use finger print technology to identify passengers. Facial recognition technology, on the other hand, is still relatively new for secured screening purposes. Four European airports that have achieved satisfactory results in adding this additional element include:

Facial Recognition Technology Deployment Examples
Facial Recognition Technology Deployment Examples (Charles De Gaulle Airport,Amsterdam Schiphol Airport with KLM,  London Heathrow Airport (LHR) with British Airways and Helsinki International Airport with Finnair)

They all deploy a similar method as the one described for Delta Air Lines above where a snapshot of the passenger is taken during the check-in process at the airport. The image may be retained in this case and used to confirm the passenger’s identy at different points of the airport. In all cases, the image should be deleted after the passenger left the airport.

Facial recognition technology can used as an enhancement to passenger identification. As the technology is still being matured, it is better to complement it with manual screening. Here is a list of potential challenges to this technology when used to match passport photo:

  1. Results may not match – Depending on the number of points of reference the recognition software deploys, it may have encounter problems matching people whose facial features may have changed after their passport pictures were taken.
  2. Privacy – Passengers may not be comfortable with their pictures being taken from a kiosk. In Delta Air Line’s trial, all images are deleted after the matching process is completed. The airline is also working with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to ensure that all regulations are complied.
  3. Learning curve – Passengers may experience difficulty in using the new technology initially. For example, they may not know where to stand or moved too much while a snapshot is taken.


The Future

Delta Air Lines’ deployment of facial recognition technology is a small step in transforming the overall screening process. In the future, it is possible that an image along with other bio-metric tools  could be stored on a smart device and be used as identification at all parts of screening. It is likely a few years away to ensure concerns over privacy, false positive results and detection are managed through additional test trials and government standardization.

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