China Southern Airlines

Ditch your boarding pass, all you need is to show up as Chinese airline launches face recognition software

China Southern Airlines began allowing passengers at the Jiangying Airport in Nanyang, Henan province, to have their faces scanned in lieu of using boarding passes.

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 June, 2017, 7:45am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 June, 2017, 5:22pm

China Southern Airlines has become the country’s first carrier to use facial recognition software in the boarding process, launching the system at an airport in Henan province.

The airline, known as one of the country’s “big three” carriers, on Wednesday began allowing passengers at the Jiangying Airport in Nanyang to have their faces scanned in lieu of using boarding passes, according to its announcement.

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When checking in and boarding, travellers will have real-time images of their faces verified against their ID photos and head shots pre-uploaded on the airline’s mobile application. The scanning process lasts just one second.

One of the first visitors to use the system, a man surnamed Wang, told the state-owned People’s Daily: “It feels very novel. I was carrying lots of luggage, stood in front of the gate, and the boarding doors immediately opened. I didn’t need to pull out my boarding pass. [It was} so much more convenient!”

The airline said its initial use of the technology at Nanyang will pave the way for similar roll-outs at Beijing’s new airport and elsewhere. It reportedly plans a large-scale use of the system, including implementing it at the newly built Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport Terminal 2 in 2018, the People’s Daily reported.

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Other airlines worldwide have tested or launched facial recognition systems for boarding, including British Airways, at London’s Heathrow Airport, Delta Airlines of the US and Finnair, Finland’s largest airline. But in response to data security and privacy concerns raised in other countries, China Southern Airlines’ e-commerce general manager Huang Wenqiang said in the airline’s press release that the system will use “multiple security encryption measures”.

“This will effectively prevent passengers’ personal information from getting leaked out,” he said.

The airline developed its new facial recognition software with tech giant Baidu and GRG Banking, a Guangzhou-based ATM supplier. It relies on biometric technology that identifies people based on their facial features.

While some online users joked that the software would be unable to recognise them with make-up on or after plastic surgery, the airline acknowledged that facial recognition difficulties exist. Nevertheless, it said the technology has seen a “substantial increase in accuracy” in recent years.

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Hou Kan, a member of the International Air Transport Association, said in the company’s announcement that the flight boarding process has become more efficient in recent years. Following mobile ticketing, self check-in, and express airport security, facial recognition was the latest step in streamlining boarding to improve the passenger experience, he said.

“Facial expressions, lighting in the environment, photo angles, and whether or not one is wearing make-up are all factors,” the airline said. “With the continued advancement in artificial intelligence and big data, facial recognition technology and application have both seen leaps in progress.”

Meanwhile, Manuel Maisog, a Beijing-based partner at US law firm Hunton & Williams, said that the introduction of the new system may raise issues regarding data privacy and information security.

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Draft regulations issued under China’s new cybersecurity law cover “individual biological identification” – including information obtained from facial recognition systems – under the umbrella of “personal information”, he said.

“Hopefully this means that China Southern Airlines will feel the incentive to treat its passengers’ facial recognition data with all appropriate care and security,” he said.