Analysts question airlines' commitment to five-year biometric smartcard plan

After the excitement of last week's bio-smartcard announcement industry analysts bring us back reality. Nick Huber reports

After the excitement of last week's bio-smartcard announcement industry analysts bring us back reality. Nick Huber reports

Industry analysts are sceptical of European airlines' and software suppliers' plans to introduce a global system that uses biometric technology to fast-track frequent flyers.

They have questioned whether the airline industry has the commitment to invest in a project which could take up to five years to roll out. They have also highlighted the mixed track-record of the aviation industry in establishing common IT standards.

The scope of the industry project, however, is certainly impressive. In the first mass-market use of biometric technology the scheme, called s-travel, will also use smartcards and digital certificates. It aims to reduce check-in times and boost passenger confidence in the airline industry following the terrorist attacks in the US last September.

Under the plans, frequent flyers will carry smartcards storing personal biometric information and security devices will measure their personal characteristics - eyes, fingerprints or faces - to confirm their identities. Digital certificates will also be used.

More contentiously, details of authorised smartcard holders, including personal details and biometric data, will be held on a central database.

The system is due to be tested later this year on Alitalia passengers travelling between Milan and Zurich. Analysts estimate that a full roll-out could cost tens of millions of pounds.

The project will be managed by the airline industry IT supplier Sita, and industry group the International Air Transport Association. If the pilot project is a success the aim is to roll it out globally to every major airline and airport. All contracts and funding, however, have yet to be concluded.

Analysts believe that there is a strong business case for introducing the new system - for instance, the travelling experience for highly-sought-after frequent-flyers would be markedly improved.

However, they have also outlined a range of factors - including the scale and scope of the project and the limited success of previous aviation technology initiatives - that could mean the project never really gets off the runway.

"Rolling out the system is do-able but typically these roll-outs take three to five years," said Mark Raskino, research director of the business management research group at IT analyst firm Gartner.

"The aviation industry has to be prepared for the long-haul and to keep investing for five years. The risk is that at [s-travel's] early stages it seems rather difficult, the travel industry picks-up and you are left with half a finished system."

Commentators are also sceptical about the aviation industry's track record for turning cutting-edge technology into everyday reality.

For instance, smartcards have been tipped as the ideal way to speed up passenger progress through airports for about a decade but airlines and airports have largely been unable to translate the hype into application.

"The majority of frequent flyer cards are still magnetic stripe cards and not smartcards," said Raskino.

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