Where’s the Bottleneck?

Delta Airlines recently announced that they have implemented the first fully biometric terminal in the US, at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport F Terminal with plans for Detroit late 2019. This means that, instead of scanning boarding passes and looking at passports for international flights at the checkpoints, the airline can just scan each passenger’s face and match it to a passport photo in their system and subsequently to a reservation.

While biometric scans are already used for many things, this facial scan seems a bit Orwellian. Maybe we are just not ready for this, but Delta has a good reason – this will save their passengers precious minutes at the airport. The passengers won’t need to present boarding passes or passports once Delta has the passport in their systems. There are up to four scans per passenger with the traditional system. Customers will save two seconds at the gate during boarding, for example. The airline says that this could cut up to nine minutes off the boarding process per flight. Of course, shaving off nine minutes would help a lot, especially to cut down on late departures.

As I write this, I happen to be sitting on a Delta aircraft on the way to the UK from the US. (No, I didn’t fly out of Atlanta, so I didn’t get to take advantage of the new process.) As the passengers boarded the aircraft, each had to have a paper or mobile boarding pass ready. They also had to present their passports for the gate agent to quickly check. So, maybe just scanning the faces would be a bit faster per passenger.

The problem, I realized, is that the gate check is not the bottleneck slowing down boarding. The real bottleneck can be found in the aisles where people are standing and trying to fit their roller bags, backpacks, and coats into the overhead bins. Even if you don’t have anything to put into that storage, it could take a few minutes to finally make it to your seat.

Getting through security is another spot that takes time. After being scanned in security by the TSA agent, the bottleneck can be found at the conveyer belt as jackets and shoes are removed, pockets are emptied, little bags of liquids are pulled out, and bottled water is thrown away.

Delta says that leaving the documents in bags or pockets saves customers time, but most people retrieve the documents while waiting in the queue. As long as the documents are in the hands of the passengers as they approach the checkpoints, things typically run quickly and smoothly.

In my opinion, the fully biometric terminal will not speed up the process much because the bottlenecks are not being addressed. I expect that, in a few years, we will no longer remember the old way of travel with paper boarding passes and will be more concerned about those itchy RFID implants.

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