Dubai Airport is the busiest in the world. However, while biometric security systems would improve passenger flow through the airport, getting a business case to stack up for widespread implementation is one of the airport’s biggest challenges. Frances Marcellin finds out more from Michael Ibbitson, executive vice president, technology & infrastructure.
Dubai Airport handled 83.6 million passengers in 2016. With the International Air Transport Association (IATA) expecting 7.2 billion passengers to travel in 2035, which almost doubles the 3.8 billion air travellers worldwide in 2016, developing international biometric security solutions that can streamline passenger experience are a key part of the airport’s future plans. However, Michael Ibbitson says the problem of proving the business case makes it difficult to progress with solutions in reality.
The gap between reality and the future of biometrics was brought to light recently after a demonstration by the immigration department at Dubai’s GITEX Technology Week show, in October 2017, which presented a virtual aquarium tunnel that would biometrically register passengers with 80 hidden cameras instead of using traditional security procedures.
A clever and unique way of scanning passengers for their biometric identity while they seamlessly traversed the airport, the media was awash with news articles, some announcing that this new addition to Dubai International Airport would be rolled out in 2018. Certain media channels even went so far as to state that Dubai Airport was “doing away with security counters next year” and would be “introducing virtual fish to verify your identity instead”.
Yet what was presented by Dubai’s immigration department at GITEX was purely a concept that was created in a response to ongoing discussions about how to handle the growing number of passengers at the airport.
“We have a very forward-thinking immigration service, but the tunnel came up as a concept for how you might achieve a non-stop process if you had all the technologies to support it,” explains Ibbitson. “Those technologies may be here in the next few years, but it was more to show what could be possible, and how queues could be eliminated in the future.”
The complexities behind a biometrics business case
Having come from Gatwick Airport, where he spent three years as chief information officer driving technology innovation before moving to Dubai, Ibbitson has been involved in many biometric-related trials. One, in 2013 at Gatwick Airport, saw 3,000 British Airways (BA) passengers use their iris to bag drop, pass through security and then board the aircraft without any further documentation.
“We did it very successfully across 40 flights in a one-month period,” he says. “But the problem is that it’s extremely hard to make a business case stack up, especially when BA only has 19% of the traffic at Gatwick, and the investment you have to make to support biometrics is sizeable.”
Airport size, the unreliability of day-to-day operations, the lack of a standardised system and high infrastructure costs make widespread implementation prohibitive for the time being.
“At Dubai we have more than one hundred gates, so if we put the biometric hardware on every single one of those gates – because you only know where the plane will park on the day due to operational conditions – you might only use it once a day for one airline,” he explains. “It’s hard to make a business case without a commitment from all the airlines to use the system – and then how do you get them all to integrate with it? So, it becomes a very complex situation to try and unravel.”
A logistical challenge
In the case of Dubai Airport, which receives around 243,000 passengers a day – with peak hour throughput on a busy day in Terminal 3 reaching 13,000 – Ibbitson says around 30% are departing directly from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Every “local” passenger is registered for biometrics inside the UAE, as the same system is used across the federation’s seven emirates: Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain.
With the remaining 70% arriving to transfer, the question over how to register what could be 10,000 people in one hour is a serious logistical challenge, especially considering the airport serves around 230 destinations from this airport, meaning it needs to collect passengers’ biometric information at 230 different places.
“How do you register 10,000 people in one hour for biometrics? It’s going to be another queue at the airport, so there is little point in adding it to improve the passenger experience,” he says, adding that the launch of Apple’s new Face ID solutionmakes mass biometric registration at the start of a passenger’s journey more of a possibility than ever before.
“That’s why we have come to the decision if you’re going to apply these biometrics and improve the journey and passenger experience it has to be a standard solution that works for all airlines and all airports.”
“It was a challenge getting all the entities involved to agree for the legal documentation, but meeting the data protection requirements of the EU was the real mission,” he says.