Nimra Khan is a recent graduate of DCU Business School’s BSc in Aviation Management and MSc in Management (Aviation Leadership). About to embark on a PhD, Nimra gives us an overview of how biometric technology will impact the future of air travel.
The future of travel in a post-corona world.
After completing my thesis during the final year of my BSc in Aviation Management at DCU in 2017, my love for the digital transformation of airport security grew. I wanted to develop my knowledge further, so straight after I decided to undertake the MSc programme in Aviation Leadership part-time, while also working with American Airlines at Dublin Airport. The programme provided me with the best opportunities to network with a range of professionals from the aviation industry. Idea sharing and topical discussions provided a breeding ground for me to evolve my research interests and learn from my experienced classmates. I graduated from the MSc in 2019 and finished with a first-class honours in both my BSc and MSc, while also keeping up with my industry experience.
Global pandemics, such as COVID-19, are compelling organisations to leverage digital transformation. The idea of contactless in today’s germaphobe world has become more prominent. Contactless payment, contactless delivery and now maybe contactless travel? As people avoid touching things, biometric authentication provides a promising contactless method of verifying our identity as we travel through airports.
Using facial identification to confirm traveller’s identity as they travel through airport checkpoints is both efficient and user friendly. Navigation through airports, passing security screening quickly and reaching the boarding gate on time can prove to be bothersome for many, especially during peak times and long queues. Hence, it makes sense to prioritise identity verification to enable a seamless customer journey. Dublin Airport carried out biometric trials last year, in March 2019, which involved linking biometric information used at check-in to boarding cards and self-drop bag tags. Using facial recognition technology at the gate, travellers’ image was taken, and cross-checked with the boarding pass, meaning no documents needed to be presented at the gate (DAA, 2019). Taking less than a second to capture and process the image and eliminating the need to show documents frequently, biometrics is making the airport journey more efficient and quicker (DAA, 2019).
Previous progress with the implementation of biometrics in aviation has been slow; however, the current pandemic situation is expediting the need for quicker execution. Artificial intelligence based thermal cameras are being used alongside security systems to accurately detect threats in the case of COVID-19. These threats can be in the form of suspicious behaviour or a contagious disease detected through fever measurement. Such technology for fever detection can be implemented at airports, using AI to detect a person, its face and then looks for the eyes where it can take the “temperature of the eyes as it’s the closest point to the core of a person’s body temperature” (Pascu, 2020).
While studying at the DCU MSc Aviation Leadership, I conducted research on the use of facial recognition technology at border control using the Biometric Entry Exit Program by U.S. Preclearance at Dublin Airport as a case study. The Program receives data from airlines and existing photographs of travellers to confirm the identity of the traveller, create a record and biometrically confirm the entry or exit of the traveller. Taking less than two seconds to process and with a 99% matching rate, results showed that despite an increase in the number of passengers passing through immigration control, the throughput rate still remained high. Adding to this, an airline’s boarding process can be linked to CBP’s program, providing a more efficient self-boarding process. Capturing the traveller’s photo at the boarding gate and immediately matching it to photos from CBP’s database, the system will verify the traveller’s identity and flight details, determining if the traveller can board the flight or not. From my research, I found that biometric self-boarding resulted in a reduction of approx. 20 minutes in boarding times, which is of significant importance to airlines. Due to this technological process, concerns around privacy can be prevalent amongst travellers. However, once the process and its benefits are understood by the public, limited pushback is expected.
A number of prevailing challenges were identified with the program in my research, including a gap in stakeholder support, accuracy in biometric matching, infrastructure and connectivity issues, privacy concerns amongst travellers, and heavy airline reliance. With an extortionate focus on security today, emphasis is placed on improving the ability to detect and prevent threats in a more efficient manner. From my research, it has been evident that face recognition provides immense benefit in identity verification, but it can have a number of other uses, like for example in the fight against pandemics.
My further research plans at DCU involve pursuing a PhD under the supervision of Prof Cathal Gurrin and Dr Marina Efthymiou in examining the use of behavioural recognition and gait analysis, to detect signs of abnormal human behaviour which can be indicative of threat to air travel. Hopefully, my research will lead to a better understanding of how behaviour recognition can be used alongside biometrics to improve security levels without negatively affecting the passenger experience. Leveraging digital transformation to enhance processes is the way forward, a lesson we have learnt amidst this global pandemic.
We are heading towards a digitally transformed way of living; technological developments along with artificial intelligence is paving the way for smarter travel. Although presenting your passport at the boarding gate may not be the prime reason for a coronavirus casualty, the investment in biometrics will make both faking identity and contracting diseases a lot tougher.
Throughout my journey from the BSc in Aviation Management, to the MSc, the DCU academic staff has been hugely supportive, especially Dr Marina Efthymiou. Dr Efthymiou supervised my MSc research and provided excellent guidance, from directing me to the most relevant academic sources to introducing me to key professionals, with her wide range of industry contacts. While the BSc provided me with a grounding in aviation, the MSc provided me with opportunities to pursue my specific aviation interest with the relevant industry and academic support. Both programmes were key to my personal and professional development and I now look forward to further advancement as I begin my PhD under Dr Marina Efthymiou and Prof Cathal Gurrin’s supervision.
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