UK carrier British Airways (BA) has invited two unnamed companies to do biometric self-boarding gate trials at New York JFK, building on existing pilot projects at Los Angeles LAX and Orlando.

BA went live with a biometric boarding trial at LAX in December, as part of a wider project between SITA, technology providers VisionBox and US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Other airlines are also involved in the LAX project. A second trial—this time with just SITA and CBP—went live in Orlando in January, covering all of BA’s departing flights from the US airport.

Passengers do not need to show their passports or boarding cards to board, as the biometric gates use facial recognition. They are fully automated; airline staff simply oversee the system.

Speaking at the SITA Euro Air Transport IT Summit in Budapest, BA senior design manager- digital airport Raoul Cooper said both the LAX and Orlando trials were originally scheduled to last 45 days. “Because we were all learning, we kept it going,” he said. “We’ve been pleasantly surprised by how popular it’s been.”

While the gates required the same number of staff, customers loved the technology and BA’s net promoter scores out of Orlando shot up. Staff are also freed up to handle more complex issues, rather than routine boarding processes.

Cooper said 150,000 BA passengers departing the US have now used the gates. “Once boarding gets going, people see how efficient it is,” he said. At Orlando, BA boarded around 280 passengers in just 13 minutes. At LAX, the airline processed around 400 passengers in 22 minutes, halving BA’s 45-min. benchmark time for Airbus A380 boarding.

Punctuality ultimately depends on when the final passenger boards, but Cooper said quicker initial processing gives BA more time to track down any final passengers. “That point in the timeline comes much earlier now, so we’ve earned an extra 20 min. to find those last few passengers.” While the data set is still reasonably small, Cooper believes the technology could have an impact on overall punctuality.

With that in mind, a new trial is just starting at BA’s JFK terminal. Cooper said two technology companies have been invited to go head-to-head on biometric boarding. SITA is also still in the running, through the Orlando project.

One of the two companies have already gone live at JFK and the idea is to have both do a parallel 45-day trial, processing around 1,000 passengers a day. “We’ve invited them to bring their product and their top people, to work with real customers and use that feedback,” he said.

Cooper acknowledged that BA does not have that much control over which technologies airports ultimately use for their boarding gates, but BA operates its own terminal at JFK. The boarding experience is also important to passengers, so BA wants to gain early experience of the technology.

“We want to be seen as movers and shakers in this field and boarding an aircraft is one of the areas that really matters,” he said.

BA has been keen to run trials of the technology because it runs flawlessly in a controlled environment, but needs to also be tested in real-life situations, with real-life stresses. “The important thing is we have tried something, and we have gathered data.”

Orlando recently signed a deal with SITA to equip 30 of its international gates with the SITA technology, while LAX is looking to run a request for proposals for its own wider biometric roll-out.

Victoria Moores