JetBlue Airways will be the first airline to test facial-recognition systems with passengers at Logan Airport in June, part of a broader rollout of the nascent technology at US airports this year.
The carrier will allow passengers on its Boston-to-Aruba route to be photographed at the gate instead of checking in with boarding passes. JetBlue will check those images against the passengers’ passport or visa photos on file with Customs and Border Protection, and those with successful matches will be allowed to board without showing a ticket or a passport.
Joanna Geraghty, JetBlue’s vice president of customer experience, said the system could be a first step in a broad reworking of air travel, substituting face checks for travel documents at every step of the process: check-in, baggage drop, security check, boarding, and customs.
“The main advantage is customer ease,” Geraghty said. “It’s foreseeable to have a situation in the future where a customer never has to take out a boarding pass.”
JetBlue will create a separate line at the gate for passengers willing to use facial recognition to board. The airline expects that the technology will take just seconds to verify identities, so that boarding for those passengers could go faster than for ticketed travelers.
The JetBlue test begins June 12 and will last two to three months. The purpose is to test the accuracy and speed of facial recognition, Geraghty said, and the willingness of passengers to use a technology that has prompted privacy concerns.
Other airports will test the technology later this year. Delta Air Lines said it expects to install a system at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to allow passengers to check in their own luggage. After verifying their identities against passport photos, passengers could drop luggage off without interacting with airline employees.
“It’s about taking the stress out of travel and making it a little bit easier from a tech standpoint,” said Delta spokeswoman Ashton Morrow. “The more you can allow self-service, it’s going to enhance traveling for passengers.”
Meanwhile, Customs and Border Protection is using facial-recognition systems to verify the status of non-US citizens traveling into and out of the country. It is testing the technology in Atlanta for departing passengers on two international routes and has it in place at Kennedy International Airport in New York and at Washington Dulles International in Virginia for arriving international passengers.
Passengers who are not accurately identified by the system can show their passport to verify their identities and status. The agency said it plans to expand the testing to seven additional airports this year.
Customs spokeswoman Jennifer Gabris said the program has roots in a 2004 law that requires the government to record the biometric data of noncitizens, such as fingerprints and facial imagery, as they leave the country. President Trump’s controversial travel ban included a clause that called for the program to be expedited.
To date, most use of facial recognition has been by law enforcement, usually by comparing images captured on security cameras against databases of driver’s licenses, mug shots, and wanted lists. It has been used for security at large sporting events, such as the Olympics, and to investigate crimes in New York City. Officials in New York plan to install the technology at bridge and tunnel crossings.
Facial-recognition technology was tried at Logan as far back as 2002, to verify airport employees after the 9/11 attacks. But airport officials canceled the program because it failed to properly identify nearly 40 percent of its test subjects.
But as the technology has advanced, it has seen more use.
In London, British Airways is rolling out the technology for boarding flights at three dozen gates at Heathrow Airport this year. And the airport in Brisbane, Australia, is testing such a system on a route to New Zealand. Canada and France have also experimented with the technology at airports.
JetBlue will partner in the experiment with SITA, a European technology company that will run the photo-match for the airline. Sean Farrell, the company’s director of government solutions, said that while governments use the technology for security, airlines see it as an efficiency tool: With long lines the bane of airline travel, facial recognition could help passengers speed through the airport. The existing system of repeatedly inspecting passenger documents, Farrell said, “is an impediment to the industry rolling out more and more self-service,” which is popular with passengers, he said.
Geraghty said JetBlue will use the government’s databases of images to verify passengers. In contrast, travelers who want to use the Delta baggage check in Minneapolis will have to bring their passports with them for photo comparisons, even if they’re flying within the country.
Privacy advocates, however, are already wary of facial recognition — especially when it’s used by the government.
Jeramie Scott, a lawyer with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said that facial recognition gives the government more surveillance capabilities and that any photos made at airports should be deleted promptly after the transaction.
“We need regulations that provide transparency, oversight, and accountability over the use of facial-recognition technology,” he said.
Gabris, the Customs spokeswoman, said the agency deletes images that match US citizens at airports “after a short period of time.” Both JetBlue and SITA said they will not hold onto passengers’ photos after the boarding process.
Experts say the technology could grow increasingly common for commercial uses, even outside the airport.
Many consumers already see facial recognition at work online and on their gadgets. Facebook, for example, can recognize a photograph of a user even if the photo has not been connected to that person’s account. And Android smartphone owners can unlock their devices simply by holding the phones up to their faces.
Anil Jain, a computer science professor at Michigan State University, imagines facial recognition being used to pay for groceries or to provide specialized greetings to frequent customers as they enter a store or venue.
Still, the technology has a long way to go before it reaches that point, Jain said.
JetBlue said that if the technology fails to match a person to a passport image, they can board using a ticket.Adam Vaccaro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.