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, says John Wagner, the CBP official overseeing the Biometric Exit program.

The Traveler Verification Service (TVS) has been “scale tested” and is “able to handle the volume of international departing passengers that we see,” says Wagner, who is deputy executive assistant commissioner for the Office of Field Operations, 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 developed by CBP with technical assistance provided by Unisys [UIS]. Japan’s NEC Corp. supplies the facial matching algorithms that compare the photo of a person at the departure gate against the records stored in the TVS.

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 rolling 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, it’s stakeholders can take advantage of that and then incorporate the facial recognition capabilities into 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.

Stakeholder Momentum

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, tells conference attendees on May 1 that the airline’s customers have been pleased with the process and that it plans to further expand its use of facial recognition for the boarding pass at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. If this goes well, the airline wants to expand the effort to additional cities and departure gates. However, she says the airline is still trying to sort out how it can generate a return on investment.

Petrova says that 85 percent of the airline’s passengers on the flights are volunteering to try the facial recognition in lieu of a boarding pass and that the match rates are exceeding 98 percent.

SITA is integrating the facial recognition system for JetBlue at Boston.

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. Japan’s NEC Corp. is providing the facial recognition cameras for the Delta pilots.

In April, 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 using biometrics as part of the departure process.

A spokeswoman for the San Jose airport tells HSR that the airport has the funding to select a vendor for the pilot program, which “will give the airport and our international airlines the opportunity to test and learn from the experience.” A competition to select a vendor for the pilot will begin in the near-future, she says, adding that the funding for the effort can’t be disclosed at this time.

“Ultimately, we will likely equip up to seven gates with biometrics exit infrastructure,” she says.

The airport will continue working with CBP to improve the arrivals process for travelers and airlines, with a goal to reducing wait times and improving efficiencies, the spokeswoman says.

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 says 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, says Wagner on April 30. “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.

Sherry Stein, senior manager of Projects & Innovation at SITA in the U.S., tells attendees that the International Air Transport Association and the Airports Council International have resisted CBP’s push to have airlines and airports acquire the front-end technology because of the costs.

Wagner points 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 says, 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 says. But that would ignore potential impacts on travelers, airlines and airports, he says.

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

New Pedestrian Pilots

This summer, CBP plans to begin evaluations of facial recognition technology at two ports of entry along the southwest border. The pilots will begin with pedestrians entering the U.S. at the land ports and about a month or so later the agency plans to add facial recognition checks to people departing the country into Mexico, CBP officials say at Connect:ID.

CBP previously trialed biometric technology at the land port of Otay Mesa in Southern California but that pilot included fingerprint and facial technology. The Otay Mesa pilot was a key contributor to CBP realizing that travelers view facial recognition as less intrusive than checking fingerprints, and also that it’s easier to get someone to intuitively stand to have their picture taken than it is to get them to sort out how to provide their fingerprints.

Also new to the upcoming pedestrian pilot will be CBP’s use of its TVS, which didn’t exist when the Otay Mesa evaluation took place. CBP will have to build photo galleries in the database for the new pilot, the agency says.

CBP also continues to plan for an eventual evaluation of facial recognition technology to identify travelers crossing the land borders in vehicles.