Face scan or boarding pass? Delta launches biometric boarding option at LAX

Flying internationally just got a bit more seamless for some travelers at Los Angeles International Airport — or a bit creepier, depending on your perspective.

Delta Air Lines launched a biometric boarding process at LAX on Friday, which means some passengers headed abroad can get on their flights with a quick scan of the face, no boarding pass or passport required, CBSLA reports.

The roll-out in Southern California comes after Delta announced last fall that it was unveiling the United States’ first biometric terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Georgia, and had plans to offer facial recognition boarding in Detroit as well.

The airline says it’s been a success so far: Third-party research from Atlanta revealed that “70 percent (of travelers) found the curb-to-gate facial recognition experience appealing after traveling this way,” Delta said in a news release on Friday, while “market-based testing showed that 72 percent of passengers prefer facial recognition to standard boarding.”

Facial recognition is a time-saver at the gate. It shaves two seconds off each passenger’s boarding time, resulting in nine minutes saved for a wide body aircraft, according to Delta.

But not everyone is clamoring for a face scan. The Los Angeles Times reports that the Atlanta-based company’s biometric boarding “comes as a coalition of progressive groups, including Greenpeace, MoveOn and the Electronic Privacy Information Center, called for a federal ban of the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement agencies.”

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Those groups are wary of private companies using people’s biometric data, too.

“There is no real oversight for how a private corporation can use our biometric information once they’ve collected it,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, a nonprofit in the anti-facial recognition technology coalition, the Times reports. “We’ve already seen high-profile data breaches where airport facial recognition databases were hacked and exposed.”

Delta’s cameras match people’s faces with photos already taken by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, according to the Times.

Still, the face scanning remains optional, according to Delta.

“If a customer does not want to use facial recognition, they just let a Delta employee know and proceed through the airport as they’ve always done,” the airline said in its Friday news release. “Delta doesn’t save or store biometric data, nor does it plan to.”

Delta said it’s been experimenting with biometric data with U.S. Customs for more than three years, beginning with facial recognition tests in Atlanta, Detroit and New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Delta has also said it has “tested a self-service biometric bag drop at Minneapolis/St. Paul for international customers” and “tested biometric boarding at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and has launched optional biometric check-in for all domestic Delta Sky Clubs, facilitated by Delta Biometrics.”

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Delta’s facial recognition at LAX is limited to one gate at Terminal 2 so far, but there are plans to expand to 13 of 21 gates, according to the Times. The newspaper reports that Delta’s permanent use of the technology comes after the Transportation Security Administration, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and American Airlines have all tested biometric processes at the airport.

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Jared Gilmour is a McClatchy national reporter based in San Francisco. He covers everything from health and science to politics and crime. He studied journalism at Northwestern University and grew up in North Dakota.