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Your fingerprints could replace your airline boarding pass

·Contributing Editor
Delta fingerprint scanner.
Delta is testing out fingerprint scanners that might eventually replace your boarding pass.

Your driver’s license and boarding pass could wind up as excess baggage on your next flight if a new test of biometric identification takes off.

Instead of handing your boarding pass and ID to a Transportation Security Administration agent, you could soon simply place two fingerprints on a scanner to be recognized and ushered through security — and then you could repeat the process to board the plane.

But the initiative, which is being spearheaded by Delta Air Lines (DAL), faces a lengthy pre-flight checklist before it can eventually be implemented in airports, as I learned during a demonstration at Washington’s National Airport.

How it works — and will work

Delta’s system relies on the biometric-identification technology of Clear, the New York firm that sells expedited security screening for $179 a year to travelers who have their fingerprints and retinas scanned.

You can find Clear kiosks at the checkpoints of 22 airports, plus a handful of sports venues. But Delta, which already offers Clear discounts for members of its SkyMiles frequent-flyer program ($99 for general members, $79 for most elites, free for top-tier flyers), plans to deploy Clear fingerprint scanners before and after that security boundary.

“Our goal is to have it as a part of the customer’s check-in experience, from baggage check through the clubs and onto the gate,” said Sandy Gordon, the Atlanta-based airline’s vice president of airport operations.

It’s starting with Delta’s SkyClub lounge at National, where Clear members with SkyClub access can secure entrance with their fingerprints instead of handing over a boarding pass or a membership card.

The actual time saved here is minimal, since the routine of lounge admittance serves a chance for the people behind the front desk to greet you by name and thank you for your business.

Delta fingerprint scanner.
The Delta fingerprint scanner.

I have no status or lounge membership with Delta, so when I authenticated myself with the fingerprint scanner (it didn’t beep or blink upon recognizing my prints), a screen behind the counter displayed a script for the agent to sell me on a SkyClub membership.

Privacy concerns

For Delta, the payoff will come when the same biometric system can let passengers check bags, clear security, enter the lounge and board the plane. But the TSA has to sign off on it first.

“We’re partnering with the TSA and moving as quickly as they can to get their approval,” Gordon said.

Passengers, in turn, will need to decide on their comfort level with Clear storing so much data. Beyond having the biometric details of my fingers and eyes getting stored with Clear, I had to scan in my driver’s license and enter my Social Security Number.

That’s a lot more data than I had to provide for Global Entry, the government’s program that lets me clear customs and immigration by scanning four fingerprints and my passport at an airport kiosk that costs $100 for five years.

Clear pledges not to sell user info to any third party. But Jeramie Scott, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s Domestic Surveillance Project, pointed out that Clear’s privacy policy doesn’t require it to delete your data if you cancel your membership; you have to request that deletion.

The other concern is a broader one: That what is now optional will become mandatory. Scott pointed to the Department of Homeland Security’s biometric entry/exit program, a project for international arrivals and departures that the Trump administration has begun to expedite.

Delta is testing facial-recognition technology at two gates at Atlanta and New York’s John F. Kennedy airports, while JetBlue (JBLU) is conducting a similar test for flights between Boston and Aruba. And the TSA is working with Customs and Border Protection on a wider trial of facial-recognition software.

Do you trust automated facial recognition to work as well as the manual sort we now have humans doing at TSA checkpoints? Do we trust what the government will do with that data? It’s something to consider as border checks get more intrusive.

Other ways to ease boarding

Meanwhile, we have other options to streamline their security that don’t require storing biometric bits.

At Washington Dulles International Airport, for example, the TSA has begun trying a new program at the Pre checkpoint that has agents scan only ID cards like your license. Software matches that data with the government’s Secure Flight database to avoid having to scan a boarding pass.

Airlines, in turn, could do one simple thing to ease the whole check-in process: Have their apps automatically brighten a phone’s screen when you bring up a boarding pass, so it will actually scan on the first try.

This shouldn’t be that hard—the American Airlines (AAL) app may be useless in many ways, but it does offer this. Alas, United Airlines’ (UAL) app doesn’t, and neither does Delta’s.

If airlines are looking for a simple way to make their passengers gripe less, I’d put adding this feature well above anything that requires scanning any body parts.

More from Rob:

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.