Category Archives: passenger terminal world magazine

terminally stuck

A version of this story was published in the September 2013 edition of Passenger Terminal World magazine.

THE recent case of the American whistleblower Edward Snowden gripped the world’s attention. Snowden went on the run after leaking secrets about America’s clandestine spying program to The Guardian newspaper.

After the US government revoked his passport and with no documents to enter Russia he found himself trapped in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport’s transit zone. For a few breath-taking weeks the media scoured the terminal building frantically searching for him, as we heard that Snowden was stuck in a kind of legal limbo, forced to remain in transit, unsure if and when he would get out.


The Snowden saga is extraordinary but perhaps the strangest thing of all is that it’s not unique. Nearly every year there are examples of passengers who get stuck in airport transit long-term.

Before Snowden, Sheremetyevo hosted Zahra Kamalfar, an Iranian women caught fleeing her homeland with false documents. In 2006 Kamalfar stayed with her two young children at the airport for nine months until her asylum claim was eventually regulated and she was allowed to continue on to Canada.

Last year, meanwhile, British national Gary Peter Austin spent a month at Manila airport without a flight home, and even as I write a Palestinian national has been living in Kazakhstan’s Almaty Airport for over three months, trying to get a flight out to Turkey.

The most extreme case of a passenger trapped in transit was Mehran Nasseri, an Iranian man who spent 18 years living at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. Documentary-maker Paul Berczeller spent a year filming Nasseri at the airport, often sleeping alongside him in the terminal.

“It’s quite possible to live in a large modern airport; they’re like cities, everything you need is there,” says Berczeller.

Nasseri’s residency at the airport began in 1988 after a briefcase containing his travel documents was stolen before a flight to London and he was returned to France paperless. Even though he had legally arrived in the airport he had no right to be in France. Hence the ensuing legal limbo.

His home was a bench in Roissy’s Terminal One. He lived on handouts, and as his notoriety grew, occasional money made from media interviews. His story was eventually turned in to a film, “The Terminal”, made by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks.

Berczeller says: “He once said to me, ‘I’m always a passenger’. I think people were drawn to his story because of the Kafka elements of it – getting trapped in this crazy bureaucracy. But also because it was like a metaphor for the rootlessness of modern life.”

To understand how a situation like Nasseri’s can come about it’s important to realize the unique legal status of transit zones. They are such a common part of the airport infrastructure we take for granted what a strange entity they really are.

With the exception of the US, which since the September 11 attacks requires all passengers transiting on their soil to have an American visa, most countries don’t make you cross a border when you’re in transit. As a result transit zones are regarded by governments as international territory.

The status of transit zones evolved accidentally. Originally they were set up to be tax and duty free areas. At the time, international travelers needed transit visas even if they stayed inside the airport. Processing all these visas became a burden, and the tax-free transit zones evolved to areas where immigration laws didn’t apply.

Human rights groups call them “a legal fiction”, saying their extra-territorial status has been exploited by governments as a way to shirk their responsibilities towards international law, particularly in regard to refugees seeking asylum.

Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen heads research at the Danish Institute for Human Rights, which has looked extensively into the laws relating to international borders.

Gammeltoft-Hansen says: “In the late 1980s you had rising numbers of refugees arriving by plane – the so-called jet-age asylum seekers. More countries began adopting the transit zones because they saw that they were a useful buffer against this type of migration.”

Many governments argue that the transit zone’s extra-legal status means international laws like

the principle of non-refoulement, whereby states are forbidden from returning new arrivals to countries where they face persecution, don’t need apply. International courts disagree, and in a landmark 1996 ruling the European Court of Human Rights rejected a claim by the French government that the non-refoulement principle did not apply to its transit zone at Paris-Orly airport.

In spite of this ruling many airports have expanded their transit zones massively. According to Human Rights Watch, the transit zone at Charles De Gaulle now stretches 12 miles from the airport to include hospitals and a court.

According to Gammeltoft-Hansen, while passengers tend to experience the transit zone as a designated area, governments themselves interpret its geographical range quite loosely. In the case of Snowden, the transit zone might have stretched to include a hotel or safe house some distance from the airport and could explain why he was never located by the media during his month-long stay at the airport.

Gammeltoft-Hansen says in recent years this expansion has also included locating more security checkpoints in the transit zone. These are usually operated by the airline or a private security firm sub-contracted by the carrier. This is because carriers face hefty fines from the destination country if they allow passengers to travel there without valid documentation.

“As a result of the sanctions carriers have become an important, though unwilling partner, in immigration control,” says Gammeltoft-Hansen. “At Istanbul airport, for example, UK border officials work alongside airlines checking travel documents. They want to catch people before they’ve arrived on UK territory when it becomes a far bigger headache to send them back.”

The same is true of passengers traveling to the States via Ireland, with US border patrol agents now installed in Shannon airport’s transit zone.

The transit zone in most airports is divided in to two sections. Most of us only see the open area, which is where you’ll find the duty-free shops, restaurants and airport hotels. Less well-known is the closed-off section where passengers without valid travel documents, most often asylum seekers, are brought.

These closed-off areas sometimes feature hotels though the guests in them may face prison-like security conditions. An Associated Press journalist on the trail of Snowden deliberately flew in to Sheremetyevo with a 72-hour layover and no Russian visa. He was taken to the airport Novotel where he was detained in his room without internet for the duration of his stay. For those with no resources conditions are far worse. Nearly all major hub airports in the US and Europe operate some kind of detention facility run by the host state or by private contractors.

A UK Home Office spokesperson said passengers at Heathrow who lack the right paperwork are held “at an Immigration Removal Centre whilst we try and get them documented”.

Depending where you are these detention centers range in quality. Rights groups have decried conditions in some of the detention zones in Eastern Europe as “inhuman”, with people sharing tiny cells and denied access to legal representation.

Even in cases where passengers are free to move about the airport, the experience of living long-term in a terminus can be harrowing. While many major hubs now have extensive retail and dining options the overall environment is not set up for prolonged stays.

“When you think about it an airport’s a pretty harsh living terrain,” says Cody Lundin, an outdoor survival expert based in Arizona. “The constant flow of people would make it very difficult to feel grounded.”

Lundin says that while getting stuck in an airport terminal might not seem to have a lot in common with finding yourself stranded in the bush, the key to making it through both scenarios is the same.

“Survival is 90 per cent psychology,” he says. “Getting stuck in an airport terminal is a form of prison and just like in jail, the hardest thing is when you don’t know when you’re getting out. Having an end in sight is critical for psychological well-being.”

A good example of this is Nasseri. By the time Berczeller first met him he had already been at the airport a decade and his mental state had deteriorated dramatically. He had taken to calling himself ‘Sir Alfred’ and telling far-fetched stories about his background. His legal status had evolved to the point where, had he wanted to, he could have left the airport and moved to Belgium under the care of a social worker. But he refused.

When he contacted Nasseri’s family Berczeller was told that he had none of these mental health issues before his time in the terminal. Nasseri left Roissy in July 2006 after he was hospitalized for several weeks. He now lives in a Paris shelter.

“Airports are romantic; they offer all this potential in terms of travel,” Berczeller says. “But when you’re trapped in one this same thing turns the experience maddening. All day you hear these announcements for departures to exotic locations, except you can’t go to any of them. You’re stuck.”



the baggage thieves

A version of this story was published in the June 2013 edition of Passenger Terminal World magazine. 

Police posted in the baggage claims area at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport recently arrested a man for stealing luggage from the carousel. The man, who has attempted to take luggage from the airport on multiple occasions, gave himself away because of the distinctive shoes he was wearing.


“He wears those same red shoes every time,” says Major Lane Hagan, commander of the Airport division of the Atlanta Police. “He makes it kinda easy for us.”

Not all the baggage thieves at US airports are quite as inept as the man in Atlanta, however.

Three years ago Arizona police arrested a man and woman for stealing over 1,000 pieces of luggage from Pheonix Sky Harbor International Airport. A police search of the home of Keith King, 61, and Stacey Legg, 38, reportedly revealed a cache of stolen luggage and valuables that the Kings had acquired on numerous raids of the airport’s carousels and which they had been selling to neighbours at yard sales.

The fact that carousel crime is possible at all is due to a security loophole inherent in the design of US domestic airports which means that unlike international airports, where the baggage claim is cut off to the public, the domestic baggage area is open and often located near the arrivals exit. This means anyone can simply walk in off the streets and directly up to the baggage carousel.

Given the apparent ease with which bags can be accessed the levels of carousel theft are comparatively low. Major Hagan said this is because the baggage areas are generally manned by police trained to watch for suspicious persons and airport staff coached in ways to reduce the risk of crime.

“In the roll call room we keep a record of recidivist offenders to be on the lookout for,” says Hagan. “Of those crimes we solve, I’d say about half the thieves are caught in the act and the other half we catch afterwards using security cameras.”

As a result of these and other measures Atlanta airport reported only eight baggage thefts in 2012. Not a bad statistic when you consider it processes about 250,000 travelers a day.

However, Nick Gates, baggage portfolio director for aviation technology giant SITA, says this statistic can be reduced to zero.

“There’s an easy, no-technology approach to preventing this which involves employing staff in the baggage area to check plane ticket stubs against bag tags,” says Gates. “The technology already exists to make this process quicker using portable scanners to verify the tags. Some airports do this manually but there are no airports using scanners as far as I’m aware.”

The checking of tickets stubs against tags was common practice a decade ago but according to David Magana, spokesperson for Dallas Fort Worth Airport, it has been discontinued in many places in part because of the fallout from the September 11 attacks.

“Bag tag checks are one more layer of security and in the post-9/11 world it’s a question of how much security the public is willing to stand and what the security agencies, whose resources are already stretched, can realistically afford to implement,” says Magana.

More resources have gone into the prevention of baggage thefts in transit, which both anecdotally and statistically is a far bigger problem.

According to SITA’s annual baggage report, of around three billion global airline passengers last year 3.36 million reported damaged or pilfered baggage. The report found that damaged or pilfered baggage makes up 12.9 per cent of the mishandled baggage claims brought by passengers.

Not all these baggage claims may be genuine, however. The IATA surveyed its members last year and found that airline staff estimate about 9 per cent of claims for lost or stolen baggage are fraudulent, and a further 32 per cent are exaggerated.

Even without the false claims a quick scan of the news media reveals a litany of thefts carried out on baggage in transit. The culprits are often baggage-handlers but also include airport security staff and couriers with access to luggage.

In April this year an airport worker at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport was accused of

stealing nearly $85,000 (56,000 GBP) in valuables from checked luggage, including iPads, laptops, cellphones, cameras and 10 firearms.

David Vang, 23, who was employed to maintain baggage conveyance systems, was caught after police hid cameras in the area where they believed the thefts were occurring. According to court documents, surveillance footage showed Vang taking items from luggage and hiding them until his shift ended.

Behind-the-scenes baggage theft is not limited to the US. There has been a spate of cases in the UK and Europe. In 2010, Bedfordshire Police found 32,000 GBP in cash and nearly 17,000 cigarettes at the homes of two cleaners working at Luton Airport. Meanwhile, in May this year police in Italy arrested 49 people, many working as baggage-handlers for Alitalia, after an 18-month long investigation into baggage theft at seven Italian airports.

Dealing with this theft has become a major priority of both law enforcement agencies and airlines. They have been aided a good deal by the technological improvements present in current baggage handling systems.

Danish baggage handling technology maker Crisplant says modern systems have early detection monitors built in which make it hard for would-be thieves to remove luggage from its transit cycle.

Debbie Norton, a spokesperson for Crisplant, whose systems are used at dozens of major airports including Heathrow, Frankfurt and Bangkok, says: “Our software knows nearly the exact position of each item of luggage inside the system and in which order it is transported through.

“If any disturbance is detected, an alarm will appear in the control room to indicate where the irregularity is. This alarm can be linked to the airport’s existing CCTV and cameras will be activated in the area indicated by the alarm.”

SITA too boasts high tech bag tracking systems which make it difficult for a disappeared item of luggage to go unnoticed for long.

SITA’s BagManager technology, used at about 140 airports globally, tracks and reconciles baggage during its journey. Meanwhile, its WorldTracer system, currently in use at 2,000 plus locations, works retrospectively to find luggage that is missing or delayed.

“BagManager allows the airlines to know exactly where a bag should be at any given point on its journey,” says Gates.

Delta and US Airways, meanwhile, have made their bag tracking software available to passengers. In the case of Delta they have created a smartphone app that passengers can download and which offers real-time information on their bag’s exact position, similar to the tracking service now offered by many postal companies.

As is borne out by the statistics many thieves manage to circumvent these safeguards, however. When this happens the investigation of the fraud can be hampered by additional problems associated with the reporting of the crime.

“Most of the time the place where the victim reports the theft is not where it took place,” says Police Chief Kevin Murphy, who oversees security at Cincinnati International Airport. “They might get to Chicago and discover their laptop was stolen but it could have been taken out of their bag in the departure airport or at any of the connections along the way.”

In the past this has meant a lot of thieves getting away with it, as airport police and airlines in the locations where the crime was reported prove either unable or unwilling to investigate the points along the way where the theft may have occurred.

To counter this problem airport police in the States have set up the Airport Law Enforcement Agencies Network (ALEAN), an intelligence-sharing portal that traces baggage theft on US domestic flights. Victims can report the theft on ALEAN’s Website, noting down their full flight itinerary. ALEAN staff then key this intelligence into a database containing earlier reports where they can look for patterns that might point them to the source.

Chief Murphy, who is vice president of ALEAN, says they are looking for repeat offenders rather than opportunistic thieves.

“If we look at the data and see there’s been a half dozen flights passed through one particular airport that’s going to raise a flag,” he says. “Then we can contact the airport with the flight numbers and times and find out who was working the shifts those days. If a name keeps recurring we can set up a case on them.”

All of these measures do seem to have had an impact on the level of theft. According to the US Bureau of Transportation in 2012 the rate of bags lost, stolen, damaged or pilfered in January and July respectively was 3.30 and 3.52 bags per 1,000 bags. In both months that represented a fall from the 2011 rate – 4.29 and 3.72 for January and July respectively.

Upcoming technologies will make it even harder for potential thieves. A number of companies are already selling electronic bag tags known as radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags. The IATA is looking at creating an industry-standard RFID tag, which passengers will be able to attach to luggage and which will broadcast its location to them via Wifi and GPS.

But technology on its own cannot solve the problem.

“At Cincinnati we tell our staff in arrivals that if they see a bag going round and round they should take it off,” says Chief Murphy. “Tackling this crime means staying vigilant after all.”

get airport check-in on the same page

A version of this story appeared in the November 2012 edition of Airport Terminal World magazine.

The world’s airports are getting larger and the number of carriers they host is growing year by year.

To deal with this proliferation in airlines and passenger numbers, a long-term goal of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has been to see a single passenger processing system put in place that can be used at all airport check-ins and boarding gates around the world. This industry-wide system has become known as “common use”.


Nearly a decade in its development the Common User Passenger Processing System, or CUPPS, was meant to answer the IATA’s goals when it was unveiled in 2008.

Four years on, enthusiasm for CUPPS is still muted.

Las Vegas’ McCarran was the first major hub to switch to CUPPS, meanwhile South Korea’s Incheon Airport has invested 2.5 million GBP in a CUPPS conversion for its Korean Air and Asiana Airlines terminal and Berlin’s recently-opened Brandenburg airport has been completely fitted out with the system.

Elsewhere however there has been a lukewarm reaction to the new system. According to the IATA, about 350 of an estimated over 2,000 medium- to large-sized airports around the world have a common use system in place. But most of them operate using CUPPS predecessor, CUTE.

In spite of a relatively low take-up the IATA remain confident that CUPPS is on track to become the industry standard. Paul Behan, the IATA’s Head of Passenger Experience, said that he expected the figures for common use airports to rise to 400 in the next 12 months with most of these new conversions likely to upgrade to CUPPS. Although only a small proportion of airports have fully adopted the new system Behan said there were over a hundred airports that were “CUPPS ready.” In other words they can support airlines with a small number of CUPPS applications.

The change to CUPPS will not happen overnight,” said Behan. “Most airports are locked-in to business cycles that committ them to their current passenger systems. These cycles typically last five to seven-year but we predict that when these cycles come to an end a lot of them will be switching to CUPPS.”

CUPPS, like its predecessor CUTE (Common Use Terminal Equipment), is a set of technical standards that allows airports and airlines to develop passenger services that are compatible with one another. In practice this means that a CUPPS-compliant airline can use the check-in and boarding systems of any CUPPS airport around the world. The same is true in reverse. In other words, a CUPPS airport can host any number of CUPPS carriers.

The concept of common use goes back to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. At that time the city’s main airport, LAX was only set up to host a small number of carriers and found itself overwhelmed by the sudden influx of international airlines resulting from the Games. These carriers had their own check-in systems that were incompatible with the systems in place at LAX.

At this time the airline industry began to moot the idea of a standardized system which could be used interchangeably by different airlines operating at different times from the same check-in desks. As a result of these discussions CUTE was created.

Although CUTE has performed a valuable service in bringing common use to the industry, Behan said there are certain systemic problems. One is that much of the hardware associated with CUTE is specialized for the airline industry and therefore expensive.

Another issue is a cumbersome certification process. Although CUTE is meant to provide a common standard in reality there is still a lot of variation. Since none of the platforms developed by software companies to host the various airlines are compatible with one another, this means airlines have to create multiple versions of their own applications that will work with the different platforms. It is rather like recording a song on to an MP3 and then having to convert it CD, vinyl and tape cassette.

This situation was complicated further by the fact that the CUTE system mandated airlines to re-certify on every platform each time an application was changed.

As a result of these shortcomings discussions about a possible follow-up to CUTE first took place at an airline industry summit in Seattle in 2000. Discussion and development went on several years and resulted in the first pilot program for CUPPS at Orlando airport in 2009 run by air transport communications firm SITA.

Behan said the new system had a number of important advantages over CUTE.

One of the main improvements is that CUPPS has been designed to work with off-the-shelf products,” said Behan. “This means that instead of using a printer costing several thousand pounds to print boarding passes you can use a big brand printer that costs less than a tenth of that. So that while it’s true that a conversion to common use requires a significant investment for airlines and carriers, with the new CUPPS standard the price has come down dramatically.”

In addition to this CUPPS mandates software providers to create platforms for airports that conform to a common interface. This means airlines only need develop a single version of their own application which will be certified once and will work at all the airports where CUPPS has been deployed. CUPPS platforms are also designed to work with airlines still operating on the earlier CUTE applications.

Both the CUPPS platforms and applications undergo testing and certification by external approved bodies. To achieve full certification after the testing process is done, the CUPPS compliant platform must then be put into service with two separate CUPPS-certified applications.

It’s a more rigorous certification process but it gets rid of all the red tape associated with re-certification and means, in the end, CUPPS is much simpler to maintain than its predecessor,” Behan said.

The CUPPS technical standard does not only relate to boarding and check-in. Via its Aviation Information Data Exchange (AIDX) there has also been an attempt to standardize flight information displays. The AIDX, which allows for the simple, direct communication of flight information to the displays by air carriers, is already up and running at several airports, including Denver and Las Vegas’ McCarran Airport.

McCarran’s CUPPS platform was installed by Maryland-based systems engineering specialist ARINC.

So far ARINC has installed, or is in the process of installing, its new vMUSE CUPPS platform at seven other airports in the Europe, Africa and Middle East business region, including Manchester Airport, Berlin Brandenburg, Brussels, Nairobi and Dubai.

Tony Chapman, ARINC senior director, Integrated Travel Solutions, said their software can be customized to suit a particular airport’s needs.

For example, ARINC recently signed a multimillion dollar contract with Ras Al Khaimah International Airport in the United Arab Emirates to supply a version of its vMUSE CUPPS platform that has been customized to allow for innovations like off-site hotel check-in and bag drop.

CUPPS is essentially a platform that allows the airlines to run and support a range of peripheral devices that are required at an airport,” said Chapman. “It can be deployed in multiple ways – from local servers, to cloud-based in the case of ARINC – to suit the size and operational requirements of the airport. The selection of peripheral devices is made by the airport customer and is a requirement of the specific needs.”

According to Chapman many of the peripheral devices, including printers, scanners and boarding gate readers, remain unchanged under the CUPPS conversion since “it mandates minimum workstation specification in terms of CPU processing power, hard disk space and internal memory”.

ARINC’s roll out of vMUSE at Berlin Brandenburg was incorporated across 153 workstations for check-in and back office desks and 188 boarding gate workstations for use by 31 airlines and handling agents.

South Korea’s Incheon Airport has invested in its own CUPPS compliant system developed to work alongside the airport’s existing internal check-in system.

The CUPPS conversion, which the airport has branded AirCUS, was funded 50/50 by Incheon and the South Korean government. Although a total of 68 carriers operate out of the airport, AirCUS is only operational in the boarding and check-in systems of Korean Air and Asiana Airlines. The technology developed for AirCUS has been designed to read boarding passes and machine-readable passports.

According to Mi-Kyoung Sun, who oversaw the AirCUS installation at Incheon, the deployment has led to a reduction in check-in times of 22 percent and has cut boarding times in half.

The conversion also made it possible to adopt lower cost peripherals since we collaborated with local manufacturers to make cheaper devices,” said Mi-Kyoung Sun. “It is a faster system. It can offer prompt reaction and system troubleshooting support is made easier since many of the devices were locally developed. It also gives airlines increased work efficiency with optimized customer-oriented functions. Using CUPPS, Incheon can maximize the overall airport process.”

Much of the recent take-up for CUPPs has been in the U.S. and Asia.

Behan said that in the U.S. this can be explained in part by a change in the outlook of many state-run regional airports which, in an effort to attract more business, have switched over from single carrier terminals to terminals hosting a number of international airlines.

In the context of their previous business models common use didn’t make sense, but it does now,” Behan said. “The reality is that more and more airlines are spreading to more destinations around the world. In this context everyone in the industry has a vested interest in creating a standard system that can work across the board. That’s why we believe CUPPS has a key role to play in the future of air travel.”

a scanner darkly

A version of this story was published in October 2012 edition of Passenger Terminal World magazine. 

There’s no doubt about it. Look around the world these days and you see biometrics everywhere: iris scanners used to keep tabs on prisoners on probation in the US; fingerprint verification in laptops and cash machines as far afield as Vietnam and South Africa. Even the world’s top athletes had to submit to face and fingerprint scans in order to take part in this year’s London Olympic Games.


But nowhere is the use of biometrics more prevalent, and more contentious, than in border control.

A decade ago biometrics at airports barely existed. Now the issuing of e-passports – travel documents containing a degree of biometric data (usually a photograph containing biometric markers and, in the case of the EU, fingerprints too) — is the default in most countries around the world.

Many major airports boast e-gates (or SmartGates as they are known in Australia and New Zealand) that use facial recognition to speed travelers through the security process. Facial recognition compares the digital photo stored on the e-passport with images taken by cameras at the gate, noting discrepancies in such things as bone structure, nose length, and the distance between your eyes. E-gates at Manchester and London Stansted already accommodate the latest generation of passports and plans are underway to install them at all five Heathrow terminals.

On top of this there are myriad trials going on testing out new, and sometimes frankly bizarre-sounding, methods of biometric technology that include avatars that monitor speech patterns to detect lying, a device that recognizes a person from the way he walks and brain scanning equipment.

Reading this you might be forgiven for thinking the biometric future is a fait accompli but as any traveler knows, aside from e-passports and a smattering of e-gates, security in most terminals around the world looks relatively unchanged from a decade ago and is still presided over by humans, not machines.

Jean Salomon, who runs JSalomon Consulting, his own border control security consultancy, has been in the business for 20 years. He said that there was a “quantum leap” forward in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks which helped usher in e-passport, mainly as a result of the intense lobbying of the International Civil Aviation Organization. But the momentum gained after the terrorist attacks has not sustained, he said.

“These days most of the booming and money-making biometrics business activity is centered on criminal data bases,” Salomon said. “The focus has been on developing biometrics for security reasons only, with no real intent to develop its associated seamlessness counterpart in airport facilitation.”

As a result he said a number of small and medium-sized biometric start-ups have folded in recent years and the production of the hardware used in biometric systems at border controls worldwide has concentrated in the hands of just three companies. These are the French firm Morpho, the U.S-based 3M Cogent and the global electronics giant NEC. All these companies have a stake in e-passport programs, in national biometric ID’s and in the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS), the technology used in biometric fingerprint scanners.

A number of other businesses exist to help integrate these technologies for specific airport’s needs. They include Liverpool-based Human Recognition Systems (HRS).

Jim Slevin, Business Unit Manager at HRS, is keenly aware that the biometrics market remains a relatively small part of airport security. Nor is this state of affairs likely to change any time soon, he said.

“A fully automated border solution may not be accommodated in mine or the reader’s lifetime,” Slevin said. “This is because the level of deployable artificial intelligence is not yet ready to deal with the complexity of situations that we, as humans, can create or deal with.”

Slevin said the take up of biometrics was also hindered by those in control of borders who were neither “technology centric, or indeed technology comfortable.”

He said the adoption of a fully automated system was dependent on completely rethinking the processes by which airports monitor the movement of passengers.

With this in mind HRS trialled a technology at Manchester Airport in 2010 capable of recognising passengers’ irises as they walked around the terminal, thanks to a remote camera set up in a security area. The camera took a photograph at a distance eliminating the need for the individual to stop and stare into the recognition camera.

The technology, called Biometrics In Motion, raises the possibility of airport security checks of the future taking place as the passenger moves around the terminal via the use of remote cameras, thus obviating the need for security gates and making for a much more fluid movement of travelers.

Aware that some travelers are put off by the idea of staring into cameras or pressing their palms onto fingerprint scanners, the security industry wants to find a fast and non-invasive biometric technology that will go over well with the public.

There have been a number of trials both in Europe and America of devices using gait recognition, a system which takes account of the unique way people walk and which, it is hoped – like Biometrics in Motion – can eliminate bottlenecks by reducing queuing times. Although most acknowledge the technology is not a significant enough marker on its own, gait recognition could be used in collaboration with other biometrics.

EU researchers in Greece, under the auspices of the Humabio (Human Monitoring and Authentication using Biodynamic Indicators and Behaviourial Analysis) project, conducted pilots using gait recognition as well as a number of other nascent technologies.

Security experts are moving increasingly towards developing systems that use a variety of physiological characteristics to identify people, largely because this lessens the chance of mistaken identity. The Humabio pilots included devices that distinguished individuals by brain patterns and heart rhythms.

The risk of relying too much on one physiological marker was brought home in Manchester in February last year when a couple managed to pass through facial recognition scanners using each other’s passports. The incident, which led to the scanner’s being temporarily withdrawn from service, was as noteworthy for the stir it caused in the press as anything else.

The reaction is symptomatic of just how divisive the use of biometrics in border control remains.

To their supporters, biometrics signal a brave new world of sleek efficiency and an important line of defence in the ongoing war against global terrorism. To their detractors they are further evidence of the Orwellian tendencies of modern states to increase surveillance of their citizens as well as leaving large swathes of the population at risk from identity theft.

Media debates about the ethics of biometrics can often drown out more prescient questions about whether the technology is actually effective in making airport travel quicker, safer and more convenient.

Facial recognition, for example, is not considered to be a very robust technology by many security experts, who say its continued application is down to the fact that the widespread availability of passport photos means it’s easy to get hold of the raw data.

As Jim Slevin points out, in the popular media biometrics are frequently compared with their predecessor, which in most cases means humans, and found wanting. In these comparisons humans are often considered to be 100 percent accurate and any error on the part of the biometric replacement shows it not matching up to its human counterpart.

Yet this suggests humans are infallible, and there have been more than enough security breaches down the years for us to know different.

Slevin calls this tendency, “the ex-partner in the marriage” syndrome.

“Through thorough mathematical and empirical data collection we have a very exact understanding of how well biometric systems perform in terms of false positive matching,” said Slevin. “In almost all circumstances the same transparency in the relationship between aviation and human operators is not available.

“The general publics’ perception of biometrics in airports will usually be through popular media; and rarely does one expect a story with a strapline of ‘Biometric System Implemented At XYZ Airport Without Issues And Performing In Line With Expectations’ to make headline news.”

As for another issue about biometrics commonly raised in the media, that they increase the risk of ID fraud by placing more of our sensitive personal details on databases that could potentially be hacked in to, Jean Salomon believes this concern is somewhat over egged. Salomon said that in reality there was greater risk of ID fraud from paper documents, such as birth certificates.

He said that details kept on databases associated with e-passports had much more rigorous security — they were systematically stored and electronically encrypted – whereas in most countries no such electronic backup existed for birth certificates, making them much easier to forge.

Even so, Salomon said inevitable mistakes would ensure that “civil liberties organizations will grow more white hair; simply because of nature’s inherent fondness for entropy.”

In the meantime, love it or hate it, biometric technology continues to advance and while the fully automated airport may be a long way further off than many advocates had first predicted, there’s little doubt that it’s coming, and that the sci-fi fantasies of the past will become the reality of the air travel experience of the future.