You have to make a quick trip abroad. En route from the office, you book yourself on a flight using a device the size of a cigarette pack. As you stride into the airport, a camera zooms in on your face and compares your features with those stored in its database. Voila! You're checked in.
With the twin aims of improving security and eliminating ever-increasing waits at airports, airlines and customs departments are starting to turn to Spy vs. Spy technologies. "Identifying people remotely," says Dominic Purvis, manager of cathaypacific.com, "would allow the staff to focus more on service." With the number of air travelers estimated to double in the next decade, pressure to automate such human-intensive formalities as flight check-in and immigration processing is growing.
Luckily, a whole lot of pertinent technology has already been developed. Some airlines have installed check-in kiosks at which passengers can select their seats. Ansett Australia has devices that print baggage-claim tags for domestic flights. A few carriers allow passengers to do the check-in ritual at home from a PC. British Airways customers in the U.K. can now pick their seat via a wap phone. And around the world, immigration departments are experimenting with palm recognition scanners to hasten the ordeal for frequent travelers.
All of those advances are clumsy compared to what's on the way. In the future, according to visionaries, you won't check in at all, or not knowingly: you will simply pass a face-scanning surveillance camera. So why haven't high-tech tools replaced easily faked documents and fallible clerks? "It is a question of standardization," says Joseph Atick, co-founder and ceo of Visionics Corp., a company that has face-recog- nition systems already on the market. "What good is biometric technology if only one company or one country accepts it?" The International Civil Aviation Organization is taking steps toward global standards now, but Atick estimates it will be about three years before the travel industry adopts such an automated system worldwide.
David Wookey, vice president and general manager for Northwest Airlines in Asia, thinks it's important to give the customers the option of going high-tech, but "there will always be people who want a paper ticket and a flesh-and-blood check-in person to talk to." He's got a point. When your connection is snowed in and you miss the big meeting, you'll look a bit foolish screaming at a camera.