They proceed to the boarding zone thinking: “Some day, we'll all fly like this.”  

Science fiction? Not at all. Biometrics, the technology that uses fingerprints, the voice, face or eyes to identify an individual, is set to revolutionise the way we travel and live.

French firm Sagem, Aeroports de Paris, Air France and police are already discussing ways to enable frequent flyers to breeze through check-in procedures with a biometric smart card.

“They are more likely to agree to give their fingerprints” in order to benefit from fast-track embarking, said Sagem's Jean-Charles Pignot at an annual security exhibition outside Paris.

Test run

A pilot project at Paris' main Charles de Gaulle airport seeks to ensure the person who checks in is the same one who actually boards the plane, placing a passenger's fingerprints on the magnetic strip in the boarding pass.

The system is being installed in some US airports, where security procedures are being overhauled following the 11 September 2001 attacks when hijackers slammed planes into the World Trade Centre.  

People are willing to give prints
if it means skipping long queues

Pignot said Sagem technology is already in use at the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. New York police and the US Department of Homeland Security installed it after the 11 September attacks.

The company this month won a deal it touts as the biggest airport biometrics security contract in Europe, providing passes to 90,000 employees working at Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports.

The mooted frequent flyer scheme could be the next phase in a generalised embrace of the technology.
 
Smart visas

Biometrics look set to take off in the next few years as  Europe and the United States introduce a new generation of smart visas and passports in an effort to stamp out forgeries that allow criminals to cover their tracks.

At least one EU state is including encoded fingerprint data on visas issued in China and Ghana, a method that could allow developing countries to boost security relatively cheaply.

Western states favour documents with embedded chips containing fingerprints, the bearer's photograph, iris or other data. That could add one to 10 euros to the cost of passports, depending on the system adopted and economies of scale, said industry experts.
 
Airline authorities want an international technological standard for biometrics, something that is nearly in place for fingerprints. But agreement over the newer facial and iris recognition technologies will take longer.

Bright future

Nevertheless, with security the travel industry's watchword like never before, biometrics has a bright future. The United States alone records 500 million cross-border journeys a year.

Biometrics also has wider applications, such as for driver's licences and distributing social security and pension payments in a fraud-free way, said the technology's champions.

With biometrics, they said, your fingertips could be transformed into a loss-proof car key, your voice could unlock the door to your home, and your eyes could gain access to sensitive data.

“I think in the next two to three years we will see a very sharp increase in the use of biometric systems in general," said Bernard Chekroun, CEO of French biometric firm ISTEC.

He predicts exponential growth for a market he estimates is currently worth around $1 billion a year.