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The newest way to board at Miami International Airport: Using your face

Say cheese, and hold the passport: A change is coming to how you board international flights at Miami International Airport.

On Friday, MIA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials unveiled a new biometric boarding process for a Lufthansa flight heading to Munich, Germany.
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On Friday, MIA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials unveiled a new biometric boarding process for a Lufthansa flight heading to Munich, Germany.

Say cheese, and hold the passport: A change is coming to how you board international flights at Miami International Airport.

On Friday, MIA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials unveiled a new biometric boarding process for a Lufthansa flight heading to Munich, Germany. Instead of showing their passports and boarding passes, passengers simply stopped in front of a camera, had their photo taken by an iPad-shaped, automated camera, and were cleared to board by a computer.

For now, face-based boarding is limited to gate J17. But it’s the first of what could eventually be a systemwide phase-in, not just MIA but for most international flights in the U.S.. The roll-out allows airlines to better comply with a federal requirement that the U.S. government know who has left the country. Biometric systems have already been put in place at 13 other airports including Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta, Boston-Logan, and Los Angeles international airports.

“What the facial recognition technology does is allow us to have a positive identification on who we’re dealing with,” said Christopher Maston, port director for the Miami office of the customs agency. “So all of these issues surrounding identity theft and people attempting to avoid detection — this closes a lot of those [loopholes] for us.”

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A camera takes a passenger’s photo at Miami International Airport, which on Friday launched its biometric identification system on international flights. Pedro Portal pportal@miamiherald.com

For travelers, it should mean faster boarding times and eliminate the need to show one’s passport at the gate. Lufthansa said that at a trial in Los Angeles this week, 300 passengers were able to board a flight in 23 minutes.

“This is the future of air travel, where we can really begin to provide a walkthrough experience, from check-in to the aircraft door,” Matthys Serfontein, vice president of airports for SITA, the Europe-based company developing the technology, said in a statement.

Or, as Patrick Sgueglia, a Lufthansa spokesman said: The days of sticking your boarding pass in your mouth, or fishing around for it in your pocket, are numbered.

If you’re concerned about your privacy, you might wonder: Where will my portrait be held?

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Passengers on Lufthansa’s flight from Miami to Munich have their photos taken as part of a test of a biometric identification system. Pedro Portal pportal@miamiherald.com

The answer: By the federal government. SITA’s scanning device converts your face into digitized information and instantly sends it through to a Customs and Border Patrol matching database, to ensure you are who you say you are. The agency, it turns out, already has all of your information on file if you’ve ever traveled internationally, including your passport photo. SITA does not keep any information.

Customs representatives say photos of U.S. citizens will be deleted immediately after its inspection is completed. Photos for all other individuals, the agency says, will be stored in a secure Customs data system — unless a person is associated with a law enforcement action, or the photo is otherwise shared for a lawful purpose.

For now, the process is opt-in, meaning if you’re camera shy, you can go the traditional route of having your passport scanned.

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Lufthansa manager James P. Sgueglia and U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officer Jessica Brigantty check the boarding system, which uses biometrics instead of boarding passes to identify passengers. Pedro Portal pportal@miamiherald.com

“I think it’s a great thing,” said Frank Pfleiderer, who was among the first passengers on the Munich flight to try the tech. “It‘s so easy — the door opens — it’s a great experience. I’m not concerned about my privacy in the U.S. because when I arrived I gave my picture to everyone anyway.”

Katie Martineau of Miami Beach, another passenger flying to Munich, was a bit more apprehensive when she learned her photo would be taken as she was boarding if she didn’t opt out.

“I think I’d probably trade a little longer wait time for a little more privacy,” she said.

Rob Wile covers business, tech, and the economy in South Florida. He is a graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. He grew up in Chicago.

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