Skip to main content

Heathrow tests biometrics

By Dean Irvine for CNN
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font

The miSense system is being trialled by Cathay Pacific and Emirates passengers traveling from Heathrow.

LONDON, England (CNN) -- A system using fingerprint scanning and face recognition systems, designed to speed up passenger transit times and increase security, is beginning a trial at Heathrow airport's Terminal 3.

The voluntary scheme, called miSense, will be run for a year. First to test the system are passengers traveling from the London hub to Dubai and Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific and Emirates airlines.

UK Home Office Minister Liam Byrne said such technology would be "crucial" in helping Britain to secure its borders "in a more mobile age."

It is hoped that passengers will benefit from fast-track security checks and immigration procedures.

Participation in the scheme is free and enrolment only takes a few minutes at the two dedicated miSense check-in kiosks set up in the terminal for both Cathay Pacific and Emirates passengers.

Participating passengers are asked to scan their passport photo page and have a print taken of their index finger. The information is stored by UK immigration services.

After then checking in as normal at the same kiosk, passengers can pass through a miSense automatic security gate by placing their finger on a scanner and inserting their boarding card into the reader.

The legal requirement for passports and boarding cards to be checked by airline officials before boarding remains, but miSense passengers are given priority.

An enhanced version is also being tested, called miSenseplus, which required participants to record all ten fingerprints and provide detailed images of their eyes and face.

They also have to give their consent for their data to be checked against a criminal record database. The information is then shared between the immigration services in the UK, UAE and Hong Kong and is designed to identify those who are deemed "safe" to travel.

In return for sharing all this personal information passengers are fast-tracked through immigration at Dubai and Hong Kong and on their return to Britain. In a second phase of the project, a membership card holding biometric details will allow travelers to speed through immigration using special machines.

The trial is part of a wider initiative instigated by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) known as Simplifying Passenger Travel.

Supported by other major players in the aviation industry, including BAA and SITA, it aims to cut the time passengers spend between the check-in desk and departure gate.

However there are still a number of reservations that biometric systems will provide an enhanced passenger experience at airports and maintain high standards of security.

"It's clear that after the increased security measures at European and U.S. airports earlier this year, no amount of high-end investment will solve low-tech problems," said Duncan Alexander from the Official Airline Guide (OAG).

"There's not a great deal of point in having access to streamlined fast-track procedures if you then have to join a huge queue and check-in you hand luggage."

A further problem for the extension of biometric systems is the lack of an international consensus.

"As well as being careful to find a system that works unfailingly, be it fingerprints or eye scans, the main factor holding back airlines from introducing more biometric systems is the lack of integration, " a spokesperson for British Airways told CNN.

It is hoped that these trials at Heathrow Terminal 3 will illustrate how biometrics can be successfully used and applied on a larger scale.

Heathrow's Terminal 5, due to open in March 2008, has been testing systems and will be viewing the results of the Terminal 3 trial with interest.

"These systems are not being developed to replace the current physical security checks, merely to augment them and provide a faster and less stressful experience for passengers," Antonia Kimberly of Heathrow Terminal 5 told CNN.

"Airports need to plan for contingency situations as much as invest in technology. Otherwise it could be that Terminal 5 and other new airports are wasting their money on expensive biometric systems," said Alexander.

  • E-mail
  • Save
  • Print