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Leave the passport at home? Air carriers experiment with biometric scanning to speed up lines

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On your next flight, your face could be your ticket – with no need to take out a passport, driver’s license or even so much as a boarding pass.

The airline industry is taking a page from smartphone and computer hardware makers, by dabbling in facial recognition technology to speed up the convenience factor for customers. Recently, Delta Air Lines was the first to launch a biometric terminal in the U.S. for international flights at its Atlanta hub. Passengers can choose to check-in with the optional technology to speed up the process.

Separately, American Airlines and JetBlue are also working on their own facial recognition programs. According to airport technology company SITA, an airport tech company, over 70 percent of airports and airlines are planning trials or full rollouts of their own biometric scanning systems.

Here’s how it works: At the self-service airport kiosk or at the counter, you can have a photo taken that’s matched with your passport photo in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) database. Next, that serves as your identification at the TSA security checkpoint. And when passengers are at the gate and ready to board, their face is again scanned in just two seconds, and they cleared to go right to your seat.

Delta said the technology will speed things up for passengers, especially at the boarding gate.

“For an airline, if they can save 10 minutes boarding an airplane, that’s a big deal to them,” aviation consultant Mike Boyd told CNBC’s “On the Money” in a recent interview.

However, what passengers save on time could cost them in privacy. In a data breach announced in November, Marriott said 500 million guest records from its Starwood Hotels database were stolen—and for many guests, their passport numbers were included in that personal data.

It would suggest travelers might be cautious about granting Delta – or any other private entity – access to their passport information, something with which Boyd disagreed.

“This isn’t like China where they’re putting in a system where Big Brother watches you,” he said. “If you have a passport that’s natural and they’re using that to the highest degree to get people moving through airports.”

The biometric boarding on Delta will only be available on international flights, since it utilizes the passport photo database from US Customs and Border Protection. There’s no equivalent photo database to use for domestic flights.

“Since the core of this is your passport, if that’s not safe then let’s just not bother with anything.” Boyd said. “This isn’t Big Brother, it’s just processing faster.”

Travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research predicted biometric technology will continue to be adopted. “If you can save a little bit of time upfront and get people into that queue faster, then hopefully this is making the airport screening process that much more efficient.”

Boyd added that facial recognition technology can reduce the stress associated with travel.

“Without question, it alleviates a lot of anxiety and that’s going to help airlines. It’s going to help airports,” he said. “So it’s a great idea.”

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