Shaping the airline of the future

Dr. Atsushi Iwata, the Vice President of NEC’s Safer City Solutions Division, explains how biometric services can play a key role in creating a better end-user experience for air passengers, and how NEC has played a key role in helping airlines undertake this digital transformation.

The global airline industry is one of the most competitive sectors in the world and recently the financial outlook for the sector has darkened in the midst of rising fuel costs, increased competition and the threat of a global trade war. In fact, the International Air Traffic Association (IATA), an industry group representing 82 per cent of scheduled air traffic flights, recently cut its profit forecast for 2019 and is expecting the lowest industry profit figure for this year seen since 2014. As such it is increasingly important for airlines to look to new technologies, which can help preserve margins and ultimately deliver a better customer experience in order to stay competitive.

In a recent interview, Dr. Atsushi Iwata, the Vice President of Global Safety for NEC‘s Safer City Solutions Division explained how biometric services can play a key role in enabling airlines to both ease cost pressures and create a better end-user experience for air passengers. Dr. Iwata also explained the key role that NEC has played in helping airlines undertake this digital transformation.

Dr. Iwata pointed out that “one major American carrier was one of the first airlines to embrace biometric technology, deploying an NEC system in Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport international Terminal F. The system offers passengers travelling through the international terminal to opt-in to an end-to-end hassle-free airport experience if a customer wishes to use face recognition technology. If so, the customer is able to check in, drop off luggage, identify themselves at security and board the flight using their face as a form of identification.” He added that ”the system also leverages the U.S. Customs and Border Protection database to identify the passengers for efficient processing at each touchpoint.”

Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is the busiest airport in the world, servicing over 100 million air passengers every year. For this reason, it was the logical starting point for their digital transformation using biometrics. Due to the immense volume of passengers that use this facility, according to a recent study by, the airport leads the nation in carrier-caused flight delays at 8.8 per cent of all flights and second place in major departure delays at 7.8 per cent after Los Angeles International Airport (source: NEC‘s face recognition is helping airlines to resolve this problem at the airport by reducing the typical boarding time of an international flight by nine minutes, as passengers no longer need to undergo multiple identification checks of their boarding pass and passport. According to estimates from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, flight delays in the country cost airlines US$28 billion per year, hence reducing this huge cost is a top priority for airlines.

Due to the initial success of leveraging biometric technology, Dr. Iwata pointed out that more organisations are embracing face recognition services. He also pointed out that NEC has recently formed a partnership with Star Alliance to allow more airlines to easily integrate face recognition technologies into passenger processing services. Star Alliance is the oldest and largest airline partnership programme, consisting of 28 member airlines who offer over 19,000 daily flights to 1,300 airports in 194 countries. NEC has recently signed a partnership agreement with Star Alliance in order to create an interoperable platform which will enable member airlines to implement biometric services for its frequent flyer passengers. The system is planned to launch with its first Star Alliance partners in the first quarter of 2020, and once implemented will allow Star Alliance passengers to drop off luggage, enter airport lounges and pass through boarding gates. In some cases, passengers may also be able to clear security using this system. The on-boarding experience is designed to be very convenient for users as a passenger can enroll using a mobile device and will only need to register once for any participating airline. Dr. Iwata stressed that ”the service is opt-in and data is stored securely and in accordance with local privacy regulations.” The partnership is innovative as it employs a B2B2B business model where NEC will provide its biometric solutions to Star Alliance who will then provide the said services to its partner airlines.

When asked about the future of how airlines can leverage biometric technology, Dr. Iwata believes: “That the seamless face recognition experience being used and deployed by major airlines and alliance partners is just the beginning of a broader digital transformation now underway. The biometric services currently being used will first expand to other services within an airport and eventually to services outside of an airport. Airlines are in constant need of new products and services to increase revenue and to stay competitive.”

For example, airlines could further expand the use of face recognition technology to allow customers to pay using their facial ID to purchase duty-free items both within an airport facility and in-flight. Eventually airlines may wish to partner with locations outside of an airport such as partner hotels, retail outlets and attractions to offer seamless payment and entry into those facilities as well as with the ultimate goal of making the entire travel experience as efficient and convenient as the current biometric airline experience.

Airlines can also leverage face recognition technology to further enhance the efficiency of their operations such as using biometric services to securely and accurately identify staff members and allow access to sensitive locations. Airlines could also use face recognition technology in-flight to enable flight attendants to identify VIP passengers or passengers with special needs and hence deliver a superior level of customer service. As biometric technology continues to mature, scale airlines will have an increasingly broad and powerful portfolio of products and services to enhance the customer experience and to control costs.

Dr. Iwata concluded the interview by stating that: “NEC not only has significant experience using biometrics in the aviation industry but also in sectors such as retail, entertainment venues, safe cities and physical security and we are very well positioned to seize this opportunity both today and going forward.”

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