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Smile! Your face is changing how you move through the airport

  • JetBlue and Delta are testing facial recognition systems.
  • The goal is to speed up airline screening, freeing up workers for other tasks.

After years of using passports and boarding passes to check bags or board a flight, travelers in Boston and Minneapolis are trying something new: facial recognition identification systems.

This week, Delta is launching a pilot program in Minneapolis-St. Paul where some passengers will check their bags automatically through kiosks that use facial recognition software to identify ticketed passengers.

Meanwhile, JetBlue is boarding some flights in Boston with the passenger identities being confirmed by a facial recognition system before they board the plane.

"We see a future where your face is your passport for travel. Where you can show up in an airport and your face checks you in, your face allows you to drop a bag, and your face allows you to go through the TSA checkpoint and ultimately board a flight," said Joanna Geraghty, JetBlue executive vice president, customer experience.

The goal is an admirable one: move passengers through airports quicker and with less hassle. For the airlines there is the extra benefit of freeing up gate workers and those staffing ticket counters to focus on passengers who need more attention.

"It frees up the personnel that we have, to be able to deal with customers when they really need that human heart to empathize and understand," said Gareth Joyce, senior vice president of airport customer service at Delta.

How do the new facial recognition systems work?

At Delta's hub in the Twin Cities, passengers use self-serve kiosks to check in, get a luggage tag and tag their bag. After that, they take it to a self bag check terminal, scan their boarding pass and look into the camera screen to confirm their identity. If everything matches, they put their bag on the carousel and it will head on its way to the plane, while passengers walk to the security checkpoint.

JetBlue's facial recognition system is used at the gate where passengers board a flight to Aruba.

Instead of showing their passport and boarding pass to gate agents, travelers stand in front of facial recognition screens that confirm the identity of those getting ready to board. In a matter of a few seconds, the system checks the database of the customs and border patrol to see if your face matches the picture in your passport.

Many of the passengers using the JetBlue system in its first week of operation found the process quick and easy.

"It was pretty cool," said Rebecca Mechinsky. "I didn't know it was going to be that easy."

"I just stood up there, it took my picture and I was good to go," said Diane Abraham.

"It seems like it is going a little slow," said Joe Gugliotta. "I don't know whether it needs to be polished up or not, but right now I like it, I think it is a good idea."

JetBlue said its facial recognition system is taking fewer than five seconds to approve each passenger, roughly the same as the traditional method of gate agents looking at passports and boarding passes to make sure they match.

Get ready for more facial recognition systems at other airports around the country as other airlines test the technology in the months to come.