Covid has spiked interest in biometric technology to reduce touchpoints and speed travelers through airports. Travel tech firm Pangiam is betting this is only the beginning with the acquisition of the facial recognition system VeriScan from the Washington, D.C., airports operator.
Imagine passing through an airport from the curb to one’s flight without ever having to show a boarding pass or ID to either security personnel or a gate agent during the entire process.
That’s the seamless airport journey envisioned by security and travel services technology provider Pangiam. The Virginia-based company has purchased the biometric facial recognition system VeriScan — think Apple’s Face ID but for airports and airlines — from the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) for an undisclosed amount. While currently used to board select flights, the firm has big plans for the platform that it believes could help reshape how people travel in a post-Covid world.
The deal will be announced late Friday morning.
“That’s our vision — to integrate that entire pathway,” Pangiam co-founder and Chairman Kevin McAleenan told Skift during a demonstration of VeriScan at Washington Dulles International Airport this week.
The company’s ambitions could not come at a better time. Vaccines are allowing travelers to gradually break free from their Covid-19 bubbles with many airlines anticipate a robust number of leisure flyers this summer. However, until the U.S. and other countries reach herd immunity, fears of the virus remain with many people wary of high-touch surfaces like those at airports.
Airlines and airports have addressed concerns in a myriad of ways. These have ranged from the low-tech enhanced cleaning procedures to expanded capabilities in airline apps and, using American Airlines as an example, a trial of biometric facial identification at its Admirals Clubs in Dallas/Fort Worth.
“We see … promise in certain biometric technologies, including facial recognition, that can not only decrease touch points and contact between guests and employees, but also increase efficiencies in our operation,” Alaska Airlines vice-president of information technology services Vikram Baskaran said in letter encouraging the Port of Seattle to move forward with biometrics in December. The port operates Alaska’s home base Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
A Scalable, Adaptable Solution
There are a range of biometric systems on the market. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Global Entry system is one example of a widely used platform that combines facial recognition with finger prints. Elsewhere in the world, both airlines and border authorities have installed electronic gates that scan travelers faces as well as their tickets or passports.
VeriScan is one of the simpler systems out there. It uses off-the-shelf components, including the camera from an iPad, to be keep costs and complexity low. There are no bulky machines or physical gates, in fact the physical device appears as simply a tablet connected by an arm to a gate podium.
During the demonstration at Dulles, VeriScan scanned and processed each traveler boarding an Emirates flight to Dubai within seconds. A green screen pops up when the process is complete signifying that a passenger is cleared to board.
Behind the scenes, the platform uses the cloud to match a passenger’s face with existing government records — CBP takes a photo of all arriving international travelers, for example — and airline systems, said MWAA chief information officer Goutam Kundu. No personal data is transferred in the process, he added.
“We didn’t want to make these multi-million dollar investments, especially the way things were emerging,” he said on why an airport operator opted to develop its own biometric identification system. MWAA, which operates Washington Dulles and Reagan National airports, wanted a low-cost, scalable solution that was also easily adaptable to changing standards and technology.
MWAA staff built the first VeriScan prototype in a matter of weeks, tested and tweaked it for several months before debuting it in September 2018. Today, 41 airlines use the system at both D.C.-area airports, as well as in Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston. The system has been used on roughly 10,300 flights and processed more than 1.3 million travelers to date, said Kundu.
From Boarding to Seamless
Pangiam has big plans for VeriScan. The company, which was acquired and combined with software company Linkware by private equity firm AE Industrial Partners in November, aims to use the tech to realize the “seamless” airport experience vision espoused by McAleenan.
The company wants to integrate VeriScan with its other technologies that could be used everywhere from the check-in counter to the airline lounge, boarding and even border control. McAleenan, who was previously acting Secretary of Homeland Security from April to October 2019 and CBP commissioner before that, appears well placed to realize these aims.
“The time is now to enable these types of check-ins wherever you need to confirm identity throughout the airport process in a seamless and contactless fashion,” he said on the pandemic’s role in the deal.
Asked about the rapid emergence of digital health passports, McAleenan said the same verifications behind the apps could be included in the VeriScan process. For example, the same data verifying a travelers’ health status that apps like CommonPass and Travel Pass show in a QR code could be included in that green-screen sign off that the system already shows when a traveler is clear to board.
And with airports putting off many big physical infrastructure investments that were not already underway, an investment biometrics could make better use of existing facilities. For example, VeriScan can be used to board a wide-body flight in under 20 minutes, according to Kundu. This could mean improved passenger throughput and less congestion in gates when travelers return.
Streamlining the airport experience is a long-sought goal of the airline industry. In 2018, the director general of trade group International Air Transport Association (IATA) Alexandre de Juniac spoke of using biometric technology to remove “some of the hassle from air travel.”
Of course, no matter how much technology an airport or airline invests in, it will always be hampered by the human side of travel. Even though VeriScan could clear the lightly-loaded Emirates flight in seemingly record time, several travelers hung back in the gate area and took their time to board the Boeing 777 — maybe to stretch their legs one last time before the 13-hour haul to Dubai.
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Photo credit: Emirates is one of 41 airlines who use VeriScan to board flights at Washington Dulles airport. Edward Russell / Skift