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SEATTLE — The next breakthrough in paperless airline ticketing may be under your thumb — literally.
Alaska Airlines is exploring using passengers' fingerprints to replace travel documents, driver's licenses and credit cards now needed to navigate from airport curbs to jetliner seats. If successful, it would be the first U.S. carrier to employ biometrics for boarding passes and inflight purchases and could spur wider adoption across the industry.
The digit scans are designed to shave crucial seconds at bag drops, checkpoints and passenger lounges and will likely appeal to harried travelers bogged down by long lines and shoe removal.
Multiplied across thousands of people slogging through busy concourses, the time savings would mean a "substantially faster experience," said Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst.
"Air travel is about moving quickly and yet airports are one of the places where travelers seem to move the slowest," Harteveldt, who co-founded San Francisco-based Atmosphere Research Group, said in a phone interview. "Anything will help."
The push is the latest effort by the unit of Seattle-based Alaska Air Group to use technology to distinguish itself from bigger competitors. Alaska, the sixth-largest U.S. carrier, pioneered online ticketing and satellite navigation for jet landings in the 1990s, introduced wireless check-in in 2001 and last year became the first airline to accept Google Wallet and to test letting travelers tag bags at home.
"We are looking at ways to make Alaska the easiest airline to fly," said Sandy Stelling, the carrier's managing director for customer research and development. "We're looking for ways to get rid of waiting. I don't think there's a lot of value in waiting."
Biometrics, the technology that uses human physical traits as a form of identification, is gaining popularity with governments and merchants. A new Apple payment system being introduced this month lets iPhone 6 users shop with the swipe of a finger, while a national biometric system in India promises quicker access to banking for a half-billion citizens.
Alaska is still in the early stages of developing its system, dubbed "e-thumb" by Robert Mann, an aviation consultant. The carrier started testing the technology Aug. 21 on passengers waiting to enter a lounge for top frequent fliers at its Seattle hub. Encouraged by the response from travelers eager to jump the line, Alaska installed fingerprint readers within weeks at all four of its so-called Board Rooms.
"We're already in discussions of how we extend this, where we go next: Is it the boarding door? Is it the bag drop?" Stelling said. "Obviously we have to line up a number of partnerships to make that happen. The customer response has been that strong. We don't want to take our foot off the gas."
Getting acceptance for the concept beyond Alaska's passenger lounge will be far more complicated. The carrier will have to persuade the Transportation Security Administration and airport authorities that its device is foolproof and will safeguard passenger privacy.
The technology would be subject to a federal approval process that includes extensive testing in a closed, off-airport environment, a privacy impact assessment and a proposal published in the Federal Register and subject to comment, according to the TSA's website. That clearance took about a year for TSA's PreCheck program, which provides expedited check-in screening for people who are a low security risk.
"TSA is always looking for new technology and procedures that will enhance security and increase efficiency," Press Secretary Ross Feinstein said in a phone interview. He declined to discuss whether the agency would consider widespread adoption of biometrics in lieu of government identification.
While the United States collects fingerprints from about 300,000 non-U.S. citizens at border crossings each day, broader private- sector use of the technology heightens risks that hackers could steal biometric and biographic information, said Jennifer Lynch, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based privacy advocate group.
"It's both a privacy risk and a security risk," Lynch said in a phone interview.
In 2008, London's Heathrow Airport halted a domestic fingerprint program aimed at preventing international travelers from bypassing an immigration checkpoint at its new Terminal 5 because of privacy concerns.
"The challenge is simply reliability, cost and ensuring that the customer biometric data is kept safe and secure," said Atmosphere Research's Harteveldt.
Alaska doesn't store any fingerprints for lounge members participating in its fingerprint program, said Jerry Tolzman, a process improvement manager with the carrier. Using an algorithm, reference points unique to each passenger's fingerprint are converted into encrypted code that can't be used to reconstruct the original image.
Other airlines may be slow to warm to the concept since there aren't obvious cost savings, said Mann, who heads R.W. Mann & Co., an aviation consultant based in Port Washington, New York. Carriers will still need to hire workers to examine documents for travelers who opt not to share biometric data.
Then there's the "ick" factor of pressing a thumb to a screen already touched by countless others. "The idea of biometrics while in theory sounds great, but the little readers get mucked up," Mann said in a phone interview.
Alaska keeps a dispenser of Purell hand sanitizer by the fingerprint scanner in its Seattle lounge, while concierges there make sure the reader stays free of grime.
The carrier's innovation team is still working on another challenge: keeping all the other information that's on a normal boarding pass.
"You're not going to be able to look at your finger and go, 'Look I'm in 16D,' or 'my flight leaves in 20 minutes,'" Stelling said in an interview at Alaska's Seattle Board Room lounge.
Jason Soza, 33, made a beeline to a fingerprint reader to check in to the lounge last month. Soza, who lives in Juneau, Alaska, said he was drawn by the technology, glowing blue, and the time saved by avoiding another line.
"I can forget my card and I'll have to dig it out of my bag," he said. "I always have my thumb with me."
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