Modern air travel is a special kind of hell. From adorable dog-like airport robots to rideable scooter luggage to sleeping in the cargo hold, passengers are desperate to try anything that promises a better travel experience. Let’s be honest though: the most hellish aspect of air travel is dealing with airport staff. From surly TSA security personnel to curt restaurant workers to airline staff who don’t mind brandishing the brass knuckles when passengers get too “lippy,” it’s the people who define it. What if the future of airport transit removes human interaction altogether? London’s Heathrow Airport is one step closer to realizing that utopian vision through the use of biometric facial recognition technology.
Of course, it’s not just the joy of eliminating those soul-sucking personal interactions. It’s also about making the process more convenient and efficient. From check-in to luggage dropoff to security checkpoints to even more security checkpoints to the departure gate, passengers are expected to produce a dizzying array of documentation: travel tickets, personal identification, passports, visa stamps, proof of insurance, Christmas lists, and on and on.
This new solution at Heathrow will bring high-tech facial recognition technology to every step of the process, virtually eliminating the need for paperwork altogether. Passengers won’t need to speak with another human being if they choose not to. The promise, at least in theory, is that it could reduce airport transit time by a third. With the current suggestion that travelers arrive at the airport three hours ahead of international flights, that could translate to a full hour less travel time each way.
The move comes in response to the exploding numbers of travelers worldwide. A survey ahead of the implementation in London indicated that most passengers are willing to relinquish some personal data for a more streamlined air travel experience. Nearly two-thirds of all passengers in the U.K. are comfortable with the technology, especially in light of its promises.
A limited version of the program in the form of biometric “e-gates” has been used at Heathrow upon entry into the United Kingdom. Some domestic travelers have also made use of the technology. But, with this $65-million investment, the program will be rolled out to every aspect of the airport by the summer of 2019. If it works even half as well as promised, we can only hope that airports around the world start adopting it too.