A facial recognition technology pilot at a Canadian airport is the first step towards the “future of air travel” in the country, aviation experts say, though the cost to privacy might be more than some travellers can stomach.
Air Canada announced Tuesday that it is rolling out a new voluntary digital identification option for some passengers flying through the Vancouver International Airport and visiting their lounge at Toronto’s Pearson International in what’s believed to be a first for a Canadian airline.
The process allows travellers to board at their gate or enter a lounge without a physical piece of ID like a passport or driver’s licence. Instead, users upload a picture of their face as well as a scan of their passport to the Air Canada app, where the data — dubbed a “faceprint” — remains.
Travellers have to grant consent again each time they want to use their stored faceprint for a new trip, the airline said in a statement to Global News.
Facial recognition data is stored for up to 36 hours after your flight departs on Air Canada’s servers and the airline says the information is only shared with its partner powering the digital ID tech before it’s deleted.
While it’s a modest pilot to start, Air Canada signalled hopes to expand the initiative to other airports in the future.
John Gradek, an aviation expert with McGill University, says Air Canada is “playing catch-up” when it comes to facial recognition tech.
More than a dozen airports in the U.S. have been using technology like this since last fall, he tells Global News. Frankfurt Airport in Germany announced earlier this month it would rollout biometrics this year for at each step of the boarding process.
Nexus travellers who pass regularly across the Canada-U.S. border already provide biometric data to streamline their crossing, Gradek adds.
While it’s early days for the implementation of facial recognition, Gradek says that airports and airlines are testing out this technology now in hopes of creating an “automated airport process.”
He imagines a time when you can arrive at the airport 20 minutes before your flight departs rather than three hours. You could pass through baggage drop, security and the boarding process without pulling a passport or other ID out of your bag once and sit right in your seat without talking to many people at all, if anyone.
“Trusted travellers” could even skip the security queue one day, he imagines. “That is where the vision is. Make it seamless, make it touchless.
“This is the future. You’re seeing the future of air travel evolve.”
Weighing privacy concerns
Whether that future comes to pass depends in large part on how privacy concerns around biometric data is handled, Gradek says, and the degree to which travellers are comfortable with “intrusive” technology at the airport.
Ann Cavoukian, former privacy commissioner of Ontario, tells Global News that how Air Canada implements its facial tracking software is critical to whether data is handled properly.
If the data is being used in a one-to-one framework, whereby one facial image is being compared to your face only at the airport, it’s more likely to be above board, Cavoukian explains.
If, instead, the approach is one-to-many — where a single facial image is compared to possibly thousands of other faces en masse in the airport — the technology can be “problematic” and is more likely to produce “false positive” matches, she says.
Global News reached out to Air Canada to confirm which framework the airline is using for its digital ID pilot but did not receive a response by publishing time.
While there might be advantages to offering up personal information for a quicker trip through the airport, Cavoukian urges Canadians to scrutinize new initiatives when it comes to their privacy.
Ensure that no third-party companies are accessing your data after the initial use and that your information is deleted in a time-sensitive manner afterwards, she recommends.
“With all this new technology coming out, a lot of people are saying, ‘Well, what the heck, a little privacy loss. What’s the big deal?’ It can be a big deal,” Cavoukian says.
“I’ve seen so many cases of identity theft and other compromised cases where your information is used for unauthorized purposes that come back to bite you.”
Will Canadians trade their data for a smoother boarding?
The past year was a rough one for many Canadian travellers rushing back to overseas and cross-border trips following years of COVID-19 restrictions.
Major delays, flight cancellations and lost baggage were common sights at various points in 2022 as severe weather pains compounded labour shortages at airports and airlines.
That lack of staff to meet customer demand is likely behind the push for more automation, says Frédéric Dimanche, director of the Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management.
The more often travellers have to talk to a live person at the airport — whether it’s a boarding agent, security personnel or customs official — the longer it’s going to take to get on their plane, he says.
Those willing to opt into the facial recognition tech could get a leg up on others in the early adoption days, Dimanche notes. You can already see examples of this in Europe’s Schengen Area, he says, where some people have clearance to get through the immigration booth faster than non-European travellers.
“You see already a distinction between travellers. That could lead to a difference of treatment,” he says.
Especially given the travel headaches of the past year, Gradek expects the biometric ID options will be popular among Canadians as the aviation industry seeks to reduce the amount of time travellers spend in limbo.
“The last eight months have shown us that maybe technology is a way for us to kind of reduce all of the anxiety that we’re getting, particularly at the airport,” he says.
“The benefit will be … to the airline, to airports, as well as to the travelling passenger. And that’s a good thing.”
Tech issues could lead to more delays, expert warns
Dimanche agrees with Gradek that biometric identification is the “way of the future” for air travel, but notes there are a number of barriers before that becomes a reality.
There’s no standardized system for airports and airlines worldwide to sync their identification processes with yet, which he says means we’ll be keeping our passports close by for the foreseeable future.
On one hand, Canadians are getting more and more familiar with facial ID technology, Dimanche says, noting many consumers already use the tech to unlock their iPhones, for example.
But not all Canadians are tech-savvy, and if the technology isn’t flawless from the outset, he believes that glitches in the system can lead to delays, rather than remove them.
He cites the automated customs declaration kiosks at Toronto Pearson International Airport, which don’t always work properly on the first try and end up sending some travellers to stand in line to talk to a person, as a possible outcome in the early days of facial recognition.
“If you want people who are not very comfortable with technology to do it, that will create even more delays,” he says. “So it’s not always more efficient.”
While he acknowledges airlines need to make investments in innovation, Dimanche says he wonders whether this is the area customers wanted to see Air Canada put its dollars after a year of “travel chaos.”
“In my opinion, the airlines at the moment should focus on fixing the existing problems before trying to solve new problems.”
— with files from Global News’ Anne Gaviola