Biometrics Enter the Travel Industry

Some things in the travel industry never change. Startups will keep on searching for new niches to target. The world will become increasingly small as travellers keep searching for the next horizon. The simple pleasures of sun, sea and sand will remain comfortably familiar to us all. Oh, and your luggage will occasionally end up on the other side of the world by some unknown misfortune. These are some of travel’s constants, the things we can rely on to remain the same no matter what.

Except the thing is: We take some of those constants for granted. Lost luggage could be a thing of the past, if blockchain technology can be harnessed in the right way, for example.

A simpler target for now though is the humble boarding pass. In recent years it has moved from paper to screen, as more travellers have downloaded passes to a smart device rather than printing out a hard copy. Now the boarding pass could be set for another revamp, following the start of British Airways trials at Los Angeles Airpot.

Biometrics in the Travel Industry

You’ve heard the term ‘biometrics’ before. Now it’s moving from the movies into the real world. Information more commonly found in crime dramas and futuristic Hollywood thrillers is being applied in the travel industry.

Fingerprints and facial recognition are already being used to unlock smartphones and open doors, so why not use that information to act as a boarding pass, too?

That’s exactly what British Airways is working on at the moment. BA has become the first airline to trial self-service biometric boarding gates on international flights out of the USA. At Los Angeles Airport, British Airways has begun a trial that could lead to a total transformation of the airport experience. In future, paper and downloaded passes could be unnecessary – all of that queuing and fuss may be replaced with a simple facial scan.

Read more: How to Choose a Travel Marketplace Niche

British Airways and Vision-Box Aim to Smooth the Customer Journey

Created by Vision-Box, a technology company based in Lisbon, the new passenger boarding system from BA allows travellers to gain clearance for boarding by looking into high-resolution facial recognition cameras.

The potential is huge. We all know that the need to prepare and present documents is one of travel’s greatest stresses. The fear of losing or forgetting these slips of paper keep many of us on edge throughout the journey.

Just like the facial identification systems built into mobile phones, the biometric gates use high definition camera technology. These allow customers to pass through by recognising their unique facial features, which are compared against those already recorded through scans taken as part of the immigration process.

So far, the gates have been installed on three stands at Los Angeles Airport. British Airways is the only airline trialling biometric boarding with its customers.

The project extends technology already in use by British Airways on its domestic flights from Heathrow’s Terminal 5.

Carolina Martinoli, British Airways’ director of brand and customer experience, said: “Our customers want the ability to simplify and speed up their journeys through the airport, so we’re investing in the most advanced technology that will enable us to streamline our boarding process and further improve our punctuality.

“We’re using biometric technology that consumers are now familiar with and trust because it delivers a convenient, reliable and secure experience. This step forward to modernise our operation is a first in the industry, and we will continue to work with airports around the world to evolve this technology, and revolutionise the way in which people travel.”

“This industry-first deployment of innovative solutions from the US Customs and Border Protection and Vision-Box, shows the amazing potential of using biometrics to speed up the boarding process while maintaining safety and security,”  said Los Angeles World Airports Chief Innovation and Technology Officer Justin Erbacci. “We have been very impressed with the results thus far, and love to see the passengers’ excitement at being some of the first in the world to use facial recognition to board British Airways flights from LAX to Heathrow.”


The facial recognition scanners could reduce boarding time.

It’s all about identity

It’s expected that there will be nearly 4 billion air passengers in 2018. This number is set to double over the next twenty years. These are huge numbers for airports and current transport infrastructure to deal with. So those in tourism and aviation need to come up with smarter, faster processes. Essentially, we need to speed up the little things.

Go to any airport in the world and you will see queues. At check-in, at the departure gate, at immigration. All of these queues are necessary because staff are required for safety and security reasons to ensure that passengers are on the right flights. They need to make sure nobody is getting access to an area or flight that they shouldn’t.

But if we break it down further, what’s really happening is the verification of identity. These checks are to make sure that every traveller is who they say they are. Although extremely difficult to forge, it is possible to fake passports and other means of identity verification. Boarding passes are probably more of a challenge given how closely they are generated to the time of travel. But if there’s one thing that is pretty much impossible to fake, it’s your face and all of its minute characteristics.

Read more: Why B2B Travel Technology is Vital to the Industry

How biometric boarding works

Today’s facial recognition tech is getting smarter.  The system deployed by Vision-Box captures a live, high-quality image of each traveller’s unique biometric facial traits. These are compared to images captured previously. In this case, those previous images are taken at immigration. But in the future, it’s possible to imagine a system that has every traveller’s face on file already.

After confirming the identity and eligibility of the passenger on that specific flight, the gateway opens and the traveller can board the aircraft.

Justin Erbacci, chief innovation and technology officer at Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), the airport oversight and operations department, said, “This industry-first deployment of innovative solutions from the US Customs and Border Protection and Vision-Box, shows the amazing potential of using biometrics to speed up the boarding process while maintaining safety and security. We have been very impressed with the results thus far, and love to see the passengers’ excitement at being some of the first in the world to use facial recognition”.

Miguel Leitmann, Chief Executive Officer and Founder at Vision-Box explained the reasons for success: “Vision-Box made use of state-of-the-art biometric technology, able to deliver high-quality data that drastically enhance matching accuracy, sustained by in-house developed Deep Machine Learning engines for superior facial capture.”

“The results present a solution that addresses current security, efficiency and flow-control challenges in a relevant, revolutionary way. We are very proud to have come up with an industry-changing solution that all stakeholders involved in the process rely on. In the end, it’s about collaboratively raising the security and efficiency standards while eliminating obstacles from the traveller’s way, offering frictionless interactions and the best experience to guests until they’re comfortably seating in the aircraft.

The benefits of biometrics

The byproduct of a move to biometric boarding passes and a more tech-based identity system? More convenience for all parties involved and a smoother experience for travellers.

For proof, you only have to look as far as passport control at airports such as London’s Gatwick and Heathrow. Both have a form of electronic passport checks at immigration. These come into their own when multiple planes land at the same time and there is a high number of arrivals.

The platform for the capability is already partly in place. There are more than 1 billion electronic passports now in service worldwide, and therefore one billion passport photos accessible in standardised format by face recognition systems.

So it looks as though biometric identity verification will soon become the standard for international travel. Some will have concerns about a centralised database containing images, but plenty of others will be happy to avoid queues and some of the stresses that come with airports.

When technology meets travel

Biometric boarding gates is a great example of technology improving the travel industry where it really counts. But you don’t need a high-tech facial recognition system to improve the customer experience.

Sometimes it’s as simple as providing a platform that gives travellers all the information, tips, expertise and boking opportunities they need, right under one roof.

Here at Travelshift we do exactly that. Our marketplace platform software is ideal for ambitious travel industry hopefuls who want to make their mark in a particular travel niche. Got a market in mind or a country you want to bring to the masses? Get in touch with us today or read more about how Travelshift software can help you compete with the big boys in no time at all.

When Travel Goes Wrong: What We Can Learn From 3 PR Mistakes

Travel is an industry of unknowns and unpredictability. Over the course of a single trip, one traveller might be dealing with or served by countless different operators. Whether it’s booking a trip through a travel marketplace, getting an Uber to the airport or complaining about your hotel, there are always opportunities for an established brand to slip up. PR mistakes occur, by definition, in the public domain. Here are a few of the most high profile in recent times, along with what travel operators can hope to learn from them.

British Airways’ Computer System Failure

Back in May 2017, British Airways had the nightmare of all nightmares, the situation that no airline ever wants to deal with: a power outage that left its IT system crippled. The result was thousands of stranded passengers, hundreds of cancelled flights and an embarrassing ordeal for a brand that prides itself on quality and reliability.

Rumours began to circulate that it was some kind of cyber attack, that BA’s systems had been compromised. The company was understandably cautious about giving too much detail over what had happened. On the ground, airport staff struggled to deal with the hordes of frustrated holidaymakers. It was a recipe for a PR disaster.

The Lesson: Apologise, front-up and reassure

There is only so much that an operator can do when fundamental systems, such as those handling bookings, are wiped out. Although staff on the ground were reportedly less than informed about what was going on, British Airways was relatively quick to issue the following statement on its Twitter account, from CEO Alex Cruz.

With a problem this unavoidable, the only possible PR move was to issue a public statement like this and front up to the problem. The message had clear instructions, an apology, reassurance concerning refunds and a partial explanation. There wasn’t much more that British Airways could do given the circumstances.

United Airlines: The Perils of Social Media, Greed & Repeating the Same Mistakes

In the first example, British Airways used social media to their advantage. They quickly spread a clear message to worried travellers, reassuring them, apologising and going some way to explaining what was happening. The company was able to do this because of the popularity of platforms just like Twitter – Once it’s on Twitter, it’s open to the world.

Read more: Social Media Tips for Travel Industry Professionals

That same level of transparency and potential virility can also be the fuel for a total PR nightmare. That much was confirmed after this disgraceful incident was caught on camera before the departure of a United Airlines flight…

The video shows a paying passenger being forcibly removed from flight 3411 on April 9th, because United Airlines deliberately overbooked its flight and needed to make room for cabin crew. Staff asked for volunteers to leave the plane, and when nobody stepped forward, one unfortunate gentleman was dragged off, literally kicking and screaming.

Understandably, this outrageous treatment caused a stir online and rapidly became a global story. In itself, a complete PR disaster, highlighting all of the traits that travellers despise in industry giants: greed, indifference, disregard and a total lack of empathy.

But the blunders didn’t stop there. In the following days, everybody involved with the airline, from the social media team to its CEO, appeared to make things worse with poorly thought out statements. These only added fuel to the fire. CEO Oscar Munoz referred to the clear assault that had taken place aboard one of his airline’s planes as ‘re-accommodating a customer’.

And it got worse. The social media team appeared to be doing everything possible to keep the fire burning. Here they are explaining how a lack of volunteers justified the passenger in question being forcibly removed:

The Lesson: Sincere PR is the best way to brace for impact when things go wrong

Aside from the initial incident, which was always going to be impossible to explain away, the United Airlines saga went from bad to worse because of how the emerging situation was mishandled. Everyone from the social media team to the CEO badly misread public sentiment and failed to respond accordingly.

Eventually, Oscar Munoz did issue a strong apology. But because this came long after the event and after other statements had served to fan the flames to the extent that United’s stock was plummeting, it wasn’t taken as sincere by the public.

Travel operators need to accept that when things go wrong, they can go viral quickly. As such, teams (particularly on social media) need to be prepared to respond quickly, appropriately and with empathy. Social media teams should also understand that their responses are completely public, and craft messages carefully to avoid further damage to their reputations.

It doesn’t take a genius to see why the footage from that United Airlines flight was so controversial. The company’s inability to see it from the same perspective is what helped the situation escalate to a global news story.

Thomas Cook: What Not to Do When Tragedy Strikes

Often PR situations can escalate because it’s not clear who is to blame, and the parties involved appear unwilling to accept responsibility. This is sometimes the case when a terrible tragedy has unfolded. One example of this is the sad passing of two young children while on holiday with their father in Corfu in 2006. The boy and girl died because of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a boiler leak at their accommodation, which was provided by Thomas Cook through a third party.

Thomas Cook took legal action against the hotel in Greece where the boys died and protested against inquests into the children’s deaths taking place in the UK. The popular tour operator then received £3 million in damages from the hotel and was heavily criticised after the children’s parents were awarded just over 10% of that figure.

It was not until 9 years later after the event that the company’s CEO agreed to meet with the family and issue a formal apology for how the situation had been dealt with. It donated £1.5m to charity and went on to be found guilty after an inquest jury reached a verdict of unlawful killing. The ruling stated that Thomas Cook had breached its duty of care.

The Lesson: Respond to tragedy like a human, not a company

No gesture or words could ever replace the lives lost in a tragic event such as that which occurred in Corfu in 2006.

But in mishandling the situation and its aftermath, Thomas Cook quickly developed a reputation for prioritising the financial cost of the event over the human, lacking empathy and being indifferent to the family and their loss.

For a travel operator whose business is almost exclusively dedicated to family holidays, coming across as a faceless corporation at a time of crisis was the last thing it should have been doing.

When tragedies such as this do occur, instead of shying away from responsibility, travel operators would do well to embrace the situation first and ask question later. Mistakes can be forgiven. Even negligence can be forgiven. But the emotional impact and the damage caused by indifference can linger for years.