The Transportation Security Administration in 2019 plans to further expand evaluations of facial recognition technology used to help identify select travelers at airport security checkpoints with a goal to begin operationalizing the biometric technology beginning in 2020, an agency official said this week.

This year, TSA, in partnership with Customs and Border Protection, began pilot tests of facial recognition system at two airports with the focus being on international fliers. Next, TSA plans to conduct evaluations of the technology with vetted traveler population, which operates under the PreCheck brand.

Eventually, TSA plans to evaluate the use of biometrics at the checkpoint on regular domestic travelers and then bring on aviation workers, relevant law enforcement officers, and airline crewmembers, Austin Gould, assistant administrator for Requirements and Capability Analysis, said at the annual American Association of Airport Executives Aviation Security Summit in Arlington, Va.

Delta Air Lines this fall launched a curb-to-gate experience for international travelers that includes the use of face recognition technology for self-service check-in all the way to the departure gate. Photo: Delta
Delta Air Lines this fall launched a curb-to-gate experience for international travelers that includes the use of face recognition technology for self-service check-in all the way to the departure gate. Photo: Delta

Gould told Defense Daily that having the technology ready to roll out sometime in 2020 for select operations is aggressive but still “reasonable.” He told the audience that 2020 is a “safe bet” to validate requirements to show the path forward with biometrics.

In the evaluations at Los Angeles International and Atlanta Hartsfield Jackson International Airports, passengers headed to their overseas flights can choose to have their photo taken at the TSA travel document checker rather than submit an identity credential. If a facial match is confirmed against the traveler’s passport photo that is stored in a CBP database, that person is free to continue into the checkpoint.

Biometrics increase security effectiveness and can improve operational efficiencies, Gould told attendees. The trend lines show that passenger volumes will continue to increase and that the number of Transportation Security Officers will remain relatively static, he said.

In October, TSA Administrator David Pekoske said the ongoing evaluations are demonstrating that the use of facial recognition systems at the checkpoint are better than relying on a visual check of a traveler.

The ongoing and future biometric evaluations are helping to demonstrate the operational feasibility of the technology and with the development of policy for the use of biometrics for identity management, Gould said. He also said the evaluations are helping the agency develop and validate requirements for the technology, and how and where it works.

In September, TSA released its first ever biometrics roadmap to guide its plans, which include leveraging work CBP has been doing for several years around implementing facial recognition at departure gates for international flights. CBP is also deploying cameras to improve the processing of foreign nationals arriving to the U.S.

Gould said a pilot evaluation in 2017 at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York verified that the CBP biometric database, called the Traveler Verification System (TVS), is a “suitable platform” for TSA to use.

The second phase of the pilot began at LAX that began in June showed that TSA and CBP could be integrated at the checkpoint and use TVS for identity management for international passengers, he said. The evaluations at Atlanta, which is another component to the second phase, is expanding the facial recognition throughout the airport to include Delta Air Lines [DAL]  using the technology for checking in at self-service kiosks at the international lobby, dropping off checked bags at counters at the international lobby counter, and in lieu of a boarding pass at international departure gates at the same time CBP is using the photo to ensure foreign nationals are departing the U.S. in accordance with their visas. TSA is also doing the face recognition for international travelers in Atlanta as part of the curb-to-gate biometric experience launched by Delta at the international terminal.

The curb-to-gate operation was launched in mid-October and, so far, only 2 percent of international travelers have opted out, Delta said in Nov. 29. The airline said facial recognition on average is leading to a nine-minute reduction in the time it takes to load a widebody aircraft.

A phase three demonstration will link up CBP’s TVS with TSA’s Secure Flight database on passenger information so that TSA can begin to look at passengers on domestic flights, beginning with PreCheck, Gould said. These demonstrations will begin next summer, he said.

Linking Secure Flight with TVS will enable TSA’s Travel Document Checkers at airport checkpoints to obtain the risk status of any passengers as soon as their photo is captured and matched.

Gould said TSA is working with its privacy and legal team as it works through the processes for incorporating domestic passengers into the biometric verification. When TSA launches the evaluations with its PreCheck population, there may be no reason for the Travel Document Checker to be involved. It’s possible TSA employs e-Gates here, he said.

CBP, in the case of its biometric exit deployments, has been able to get airports and airlines to buy the camera equipment used at departure gates while providing the backend face matching system, TVS. The agency is also letting airports and airlines use TVS for the boarding checks instead of a boarding pass and for other touchpoints in the curb-to-gate experience, and is deploying face recognition at arrival checks to simplify processing and entry into the airport.