Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is ready to accelerate the adoption of a congressionally-mandated biometric exit system at U.S. airports and the agency expects to see airports and airlines begin to expand their participation in the program, John Wagner, the CBP official overseeing the Biometric Exit program, said on Monday.

John Wagner, deputy executive assistant commissioner for the Office of Field Operations at Customs and Border Protection. Photo: CBP

The Traveler Verification Service (TVS) has been “scale tested” and is “able to handle the volume of international departing passengers that we see,” Wagner, who is deputy executive assistant commissioner for the Office of Field Operations, said in response to a question at the annual Connect:ID conference in Washington, D.C. “It’s scalable, it’s ready and we’re going to start plugging in all of the stakeholders that choose to use it.”

The TVS is a cloud-based service that performs facial recognition matching for CBP’s Biometric Exit program, which the agency is using to biometrically verify that foreign nationals have departed the U.S. in accordance with the terms of their visas. CBP, in partnership with various airlines and airports, has at least 10 exit evaluations ongoing.

While the exit mandate is aimed at foreign nationals, CBP is also doing facial recognition of U.S. citizens as they depart the U.S. at the participating airlines for the sake of expediency when travelers board a flight so that the agency doesn’t have to create separate processes at departure gates for different nationalities. CBP deletes the photos of U.S. citizens from the TVS within two weeks of their departure on an international flight to satisfy privacy concerns.

The TVS was built by CBP with technical assistance provided by Unisys [UIS], which uses facial recognition algorithms supplied by Japan’s NEC Corp.

After more than a decade of trying to sort out the best operating concept for a biometric exit system, in the last year of the Obama administration, then-Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson directed CBP to accelerate its efforts in this area with a goal to roll out the system to airports by 2018. The exact nature of the rollout wasn’t clear but CBP, after a number of evaluations, including at pedestrian crossings at a land port of entry, settled on facial recognition technology that could relatively easily be deployed at airport departure gates.

Amid fiscal constraints and not wanting to push a specific solution on its stakeholders, CBP decided it would be responsible for the TVS and began to encourage airlines and airports to purchase the front-end systems, that is, the cameras and related integration for use at departure gates and integration with the cloud-based matching platform. CBP’s pitch has been that it in supplying the matching system, its stakeholders can take advantage of that and then incorporate the facial recognition capabilities in their business processes. For example, a traveler’s face image, once quickly matched against a stored photo in the TVS, can be used instead of a digital or paper boarding bass at the departure gate, improving passenger convenience.

Some airlines have already begun to experiment with facial recognition for baggage drop and access to VIP lounges.

JetBlue [JBLU], on two separate international flights out of Boston’s Logan International Airport, is using facial recognition in lieu of a boarding pass for passengers that agree to participate. The process is also part of CBP’s biometric exit match.

Liliana Petrova, director of Customer Experience for JetBlue, told conference attendees on Tuesday that the airline’s customers have been pleased with the process and that it plans to further expand its use of facial recognition instead of traditional boarding passes. However, she said the airline is still trying to sort out how it can generate a return on investment.

Delta Air Lines [DAL], which has been working with CBP on select international flights from Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson International Airport on evaluations of facial recognition for biometric exit, also is examining the technology for use as a boarding pass.

Last month, the authority that oversees Orlando International Airport in Florida agreed to spend $4 million on deploying camera systems at 30 departure gates and Federal Inspection Stations to process international travelers departing and arriving to the U.S. Norm Mineta San Jose International Airport in California also recently decided that it wants to deploy camera systems for use in biometric entry and exit.

Lufthansa, which is also working with CBP at Los Angeles International Airport on biometric exit, is also evaluating the facial recognition technology as the boarding pass. The airline said that it was able to board a flight of 350 passengers on an Airbus A380 jumbo jet in 20 minutes using biometrics for a boarding pass.

In the near-term, “We will see airports and airlines start to, on a grander scale, start to plug in their operations to do” biometric exit, Wagner said. “And allow us, like we saw with the Orlando announcement, to do it on a grander scale. Maybe a per terminal scale, a per airport scale, or a group of flights in one particular area so you’ll see more of that start to be developed and deployed.”

While some airlines and airports have been forward leaning in terms of making their own investments in biometric exit and related improvements to passenger travel, others appear less interested for the time being.

Wagner pointed out that he is working under a congressional mandate, highlighting that a government-mandated solution would likely not please most stakeholders. Working with stakeholders, solutions “come out a whole lot better,” he said, adding later that the program is allowing stakeholders to tailor solutions to their needs and hire their own integrators.

For 10 years the Department of Homeland Security “took the typical government approach of ‘okay, we’ve got a requirement, we’ve got a law behind us from Congress, we know how we can do this and we can buy X number of pieces of technology, nail them to the floor at the airport, hide behind the law, and say, everyone has to go through this now before you get onboard the plane,” Wagner said. But that would ignore potential impacts on travelers, airlines and airports, he said.

“The path to success is us not owning that and being that typical stovepiped, independent, walled off process to do that,” Wagner said.