Big Brother at the Airport Lounge
It's a busy Friday afternoon, your flight's been delayed, and there's a long line of people waiting to have their credentials checked to be admitted to the business class lounge. How much is it worth to you to cut the line and get to the free drinks? Ten dollars? Submitting to a fingerprint scan that stores personally identifiable data in the airlines' computer servers?
If you chose the second option, then Alaska Airlines might be your kind of carrier. Beginning Aug. 21, users of the airline's Board Room premium lounge in Seattle have been able to bypass the traditional check-in with a simple fingerprint scan (Alaska says it doesn't store fingerprint images; rather, it stores reference points unique to each fingerprint). Since then, Alaska has installed fingerprint scanners at other airport lounges.
None of this should come as a surprise. The iPhone 6 and its fingerprint scanner are runaway hits (though, in fairness, those prints are stored in the phone, not at or by Apple), and Americans -- despite their oft-professed concerns for privacy -- don't appear to have given up online services such as Google or Facebook that profit from users' personal information. Using biometric data for the sake of convenience, especially at the airport, seems like a natural next step.
And that's how Alaska Airlines is depicting it. "We're already in discussions of how we extend this, where we go next," Sandy Stelling, Alaska's managing director for customer research and development, told Bloomberg. "Is it the boarding door? Is it the bag drop?" One option the airline is exploring is replacing fingerprints for boarding passes, personal ID and credit cards.
Whatever Alaska decides, the conversation is timely. Several international airports are using or are experimenting with biometric data for security purposes. The world's most prominent airline trade association -- the International Air Transport Association -- supports making mandatory collection and analysis of biometrics an integral part of airport security before the end of the decade.
However, Alaska's interest in collecting and using biometric data has very little to do with security ("We're looking for ways to get rid of waiting," explained Alaska's Stelling) and almost everything to do with enhancing its image as a customer-friendly airline. The company's program appears to appeal to frequent business travelers who are willing to pay -- with their privacy -- to skip lines. But what appeal does surrendering biometric data for everyone else?
One data point is the TSA's PreCheck program. It allows travelers to use expedited airport security lines where they can keep on their shoes and belts, and don't have to take out their electronics. In exchange, they provide the TSA with fingerprints, background information, submit to an interview and pay an $85 fee. There are two benefits. From a marketing standpoint, passengers theoretically enjoy a quicker, more pleasant security experience. Second, pre-screening of passengers enhances security overall. The message seems to be getting through: 598,814 people have enrolled in PreCheck, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal last week, and an additional 1.3 million people are eligible to use the program via other trusted traveler programs.
Yet the often empty or underutilized PreCheck lanes at U.S. airports indicate that only a minority of travelers have adopted the program. The problem, at least in part, is the collection of biometric data, according to the Journal. If the TSA were willing to drop the biometric requirement, it could sign up an additional 10 million PreCheck members, according to an expert cited by the Journal. But so long as that requirement remains, any marketing effort will probably peak around 1 million enrollees.
That should be a cautionary note for Alaska Airlines and other air carriers that envision using biometrics to enhance efficiency and the passenger experience. Not every American is a frequent flier, and even those who are may want to preserve at least the illusion that they have some privacy left.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
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