Airport facial recognition: Could it spell the beginning of the end for passports?

​Like several airlines, Finnair is testing facial recognition on passengers at airport check-ins but its approach in Helsinki differs subtly from the others.
Written by Eeva Haaramo, Contributor

In the Helsinki airport facial-recognition trial, a ceiling camera recognizes passengers in the queue, and all the relevant details flash up on the airline's screen when the passenger approaches the desk.

Image: Futurice

Forget boarding passes. In future, our faces could be the only thing needed to board a plane. Finland's national airline Finnair and airport operator Finavia are trialing the use of facial-recognition technology to speed up airport check-ins.

"Face recognition is one of the new technologies that, in addition to our trial, are being tested at a few airports. There's an interest in it from the aviation world and elsewhere," Timo Rissanen, head of Helsinki ground experience at Finnair tells ZDNet. "With this trial, we want to test how it suits our [processes] in practice."

During the three-week trial, 1,000 of Finnair's frequent fliers are invited to be guinea pigs for the new system. They register on an Android app, take three pictures of their face, which are turned into untraceable biometric IDs to avoid storing the images, and choose a designated check-in desk at the airport.

A ceiling camera recognizes them in the queue, and all the relevant details flash up on the customer service agent's screen when the passenger approaches the desk. The agent then checks their documents and confirms whether the facial recognition has been successful.

The test setup is built by Finnish software firm Futurice, using widely available hardware, such as a touchscreen PC and a camera, and cloud-based software.

"We have a software vendor [unnamed] for the facial-conversion algorithm," says Tuğberk Duman, project manager at Futurice. "We built the passenger experience and platform around it, so we didn't develop our own technology for recognizing people."

Duman was also behind another Finavia experiment last year, where a pair of Google Glasses were used for facial scanning at an employees' security checkpoint at the airport. A key finding was that three facial images are required for accurate results. The new passenger trial will test this point in a more demanding environment where people are on the move.

"When you go to the departure hall of an airport, you have natural light, you have flickering light, you have yellow light, you have white light," explains Duman. "It's like a carnival in that sense."

Another potential pain point is whether passengers are capable of taking facial-recognition compatible photos, but Duman says the results have been positive so far.

The Helsinki trial is the latest in a series of facial-recognition tests at airports designed to smooth travelers' airport experiences. For example, Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris is currently trialing facial recognition in security checks, while Dutch airline KLM is experimenting with similar technology to speed up boarding in Amsterdam's Schiphol airport.

But where the Finnish trial differs, according to Duman, is that passengers only need to register for the system once at home instead of relying on kiosks at the airport or passport images.

"You can make facial recognition work today by taking photos at the airport, by asking passengers to go to the security checkpoint and stare at a camera," Duman explains.

"The challenge is how to make [the experience] convenient for the passengers, so you don't just add another step to the already inconvenient process of getting yourself on board an aircraft."

For Finnair, the trial is also part of its larger vision of 'hands in the pockets' traveling, where passengers no longer need travel documents to board a flight. This goal echoes Australia's ambitious plan to automate 90 percent of passenger processing at airports by 2020 using biometric recognition. But Rissanen stresses the facial recognition test is only the first phase on a long path.

"In practice, we're talking about years of development work," he says. "I would say in about five years it could be possible [to travel without a boarding pass], when you take into account all the service points at an airport."

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