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Biometrics: the future of air travel?

Alaska Airlines is exploring using passengers’ fingerprints to replace travel documents in a bid to simplify the travel experience and save time.

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Alaska Airlines is working to replace boarding passes with biometrics.

Anthony P. Bolante/File/Reuters

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 Alaska Airlines may soon be boarding you for your flight via biometrics.

The airline has just completed working on the ins and outs of a system that would allow passengers to use their fingerprints instead of a boarding pass and a government-issued ID to check their bags, pass through the security checkpoint and board their flight.

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“Our big-picture dream is that any time you have to prove who you are during any of the steps of air travel, you could simply use your fingerprint instead,” Jerry Tolzman, manager of Alaska Airlines customer research and development, said. “We want this to be a curb-to-seat experience.”

“Since mid-April, hundreds of customers have used the service. Almost all of the customers who participated in the experiment said they were 'delighted' with the experience and the prospect of using biometrics to streamline the day of travel,” according to an airline blog post.

“Using biometrics as identification has a huge potential to simplify the travel experience and eliminate hassles, while adding to the security of air travel,” Tolzman said. “We’re very excited to see where we can take this next.”

Biometrics, the technology that uses human physical traits as a form of identification, is gaining popularity with governments and business people. For instance, an Apple Inc. payment system introduced last year lets iPhone 6 users shop with the swipe of a finger.

If successful, the system will not only reduce the waiting time in security queues at airports but also reduce costs.

Using biometrics as identification, however, could produce security lapses that travel analysts are wary about.

Bloomberg highlighted the concerns.

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While the US collects fingerprints from about 300,000 non-US citizens at border crossings each day, broader private-sector use of the technology heightens risks that hackers could steal biometric and biographic information, said Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based privacy advocate group.

“It’s both a privacy risk and a security risk,” Lynch said.   

The European Commission is currently exploring fingerprint, iris and facial recognition technology – an initiative dubbed “Smart Borders” – in a bid to improve bid to expedite passenger processing while maintaining the highest levels of security.

In 2008, London Heathrow Airport scrapped its plan to fingerprint all passengers departing on flights from the building because of privacy concerns.