KAC: Creating smarter airports that safeguard passenger journeys
Photography: Jae-hyun Kim
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KAC: Creating smarter airports that safeguard passenger journeys

Kijun Lee — September 2020

Korea Airports Corporation is using advanced biometric technology to optimize travel in turbulent times. Its Smart Airport manager Jung Yeongyu outlines the business — and traveler — benefits.

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As the holiday season reached its peak in South Korea in mid-August, the domestic terminal at Seoul’s Gimpo International Airport was as crowded as ever with people heading off on vacation. The Covid-19 pandemic, together with weeks of heavy rainfall, wasn’t enough to deter their desire to travel.

However, one thing about the terminal had changed significantly in recent months — there was a noticeable surge in the number of people choosing to use the airport’s departure gates equipped with biometric recognition systems.

In contrast to the regular gates, where airport staff ask passengers — stood in long lines — to remove their masks in order to verify their identities, travelers using the biometric systems are able to complete the boarding process by simply placing their boarding pass and the palm of their hands above a reader — with no requirement to remove their mask or indeed come into contact with airport staff. In other words, the biometric technology, based on Fujitsu’s innovative PalmSecure system, enables a swift and safe passage through a busy airport, ensuring social distancing throughout.

Such a scene at Gimpo International Airport demonstrates the importance, more than ever, of applying advanced technology to difficult business and societal challenges. The airline industry — clearly one of the sectors most affected by the pandemic — has always been at the forefront of innovation. And airport managers around the world have constantly been on the look-out for the opportunity to use cutting-edge technologies — IoT, big data, biometric recognition and, most recently, AI — that can make airports safer and more comfortable places for travelers.

Gimpo’s operator, Korea Airports Corporation (KAC), which runs 13 other airports in the country, is in the early stages of a mid- to long-term business strategy — Vision 2030 — that has set it on a course to become an operator of world-beating smart airports. As its president and CEO Chang-Wan Son said last year: “Customer safety and service is our top priority as we aim to assure safe and comfortable airports… To this end, we are actively utilizing cutting-edge technologies to innovate our processes and create smart airports.”

Airport pioneer of palm vein verification

Most notable in that innovation journey is its application — and the customer acceptance — of its palm vein recognition system. Passengers who pre-register the palm vein patterns that are unique to everyone’s hands at one KAC airport are able to move freely through all KAC airports without identification cards.

“KAC, manager of Smart Airports, Jung_Yeongyu”

The adoption rate of the service, which had been gradually increasing since its implementation, jumped dramatically as Covid-19 started spreading. According to KAC, use of the systems more than doubled during the first half of 2020. Between January and July, 16.3% of all passengers passing through KAC airports used the palm vein system compared to just 6.6% in the year-earlier period.

While biometric technologies are not uncommon at other airports (with fingerprint, iris or facial recognition deployed by major global airports such as Schiphol and Heathrow) Korea’s domestic airports have become a flagship for the deployment of palm vein technology. And according to Jung Yeongyu, manager within the Smart Airport Department of KAC, there was a compelling case to adopt the innovative technology — and one that has only increased in importance.

“The most stressful processes for passengers at any airport are around security checks and identity verification. We receive a lot of feedback from passengers around the anxiety caused by security checks and the boredom associated with long waiting times,” says Jung. “However, the introduction of biometric technologies allows passengers to have their identities checked easily and quickly, and that significantly improves customer satisfaction.”

KAC’s recognition of the importance of biometric recognition dates back to 2017, when Korea was directly exposed to geopolitical threats, namely from its neighbor North Korea. As a result, boarding procedures at the country’s airports involved more rigorous checks, even when passengers were taking domestic flights.

Up to that point, when a passenger turned up at the airport without their ID card, officials were able to cross-check their identities against other sources and allow them to embark. But as Jung says, “when that identity verification service discontinued, passengers without their ID cards might face a problem. So we introduced palm vein recognition technologies in 2018 to address this problem.”

Pandemic-ready technology

The solution for KAC was PalmSecure, Fujitsu's palm vein recognition system — and its application has proved to be highly advantageous in the era of Covid-19. With the pandemic forcing the wearing of face masks in many public spaces and minimal contact between people, palm vein recognition has gained a lot of positive attention. That’s because palm vein recognition — unlike several other identity verification technologies — is seen as satisfying many of the new requirements. The prevalence of face masks, for example, has reduced the applicability — and accuracy — of facial recognition technologies. And fingerprint recognition is not seen as ideal as it requires individuals to physically touch scanners as part of the verification process.

In contrast, palm vein recognition technologies allow people to verify their identifies without taking off their mask. And with its sensors detecting the patterns in palm veins by emitting near-infrared rays, verification is achieved without any physical contact between an individual’s hand and the device. In a pandemic-impacted world, that lack of contact is highly positive for hygiene — both for the individual and the airport environment.

Needless to say, Jung did not foresee the outbreak of Covid-19 when he first selected Fujitsu’s PalmSecure technology. “I chose it based on my judgment that the palm vein technology excels over other biometric technologies in various aspects,” he says.

Most importantly, palm vein recognition is simply more accurate than many other biometric technologies. “When comparing the accuracy indicators of False Acceptance Rates (incorrectly accepting an access attempt by an unauthorized user) and False Rejection Rates (incorrectly rejecting an access attempt by an authorized user), palm vein recognition turned out to be the most advanced,” Jung explains. “That is because, unlike other recognition technologies, palm vein recognition utilizes the unique information that exists under the human skin.”

Fingerprint, facial and iris recognition technologies, though widely used, rely on image-scanning technologies. They store the external appearances of a fingerprint, face or iris as a digital image and look up those when a person is verifying their identity. In contrast, palm vein verification works by identifying the unique pattern of deoxygenated hemoglobin in subcutaneous tissue.

“KAC, manager of Smart Airports, Jung_Yeongyu”

Unlike fingerprint recognition, where errors might occur due to wet or unwashed hands, the operation of palm vein recognition is viable even when hands are dirty or are placed above a reader. In addition, facial or iris recognition may present biased data depending on race or physical traits — problems that are absent from palm vein recognition. “Iris recognition is known for its high recognition accuracy, but it sometimes yields incorrect results if someone has specific eye traits, such as ptosis,” Jung points out. “Palm vein recognition manifests a similar level of accuracy yet does not have such drawbacks.”  According to Fujitsu, the error rate of its PalmSecure system is less than 0.00001%.

Biometric trust

The most controversial issue surrounding biometric recognition has always been privacy, which means some people are reluctant to provide their biometric information. Unlike ID cards or passwords, biometric information cannot be revoked if compromised. But Jung reassures that in opting for palm vein as a biometric solution, the protection of individual privacy was a top priority for KAC.

As he argues, palm vein provides better security than other biometric verification systems because it digitizes and encrypts the captured information. With other biometric information, the information that is presented by the user needs to be identical to that stored for verification to be completed.
However, palm vein information does not store the user’s actual biometric information but holds a digitally encrypted version of it, making the risk of any compromise negligible. “That digitization and enciphering function was key in our choice of Fujitsu’s PalmSecure,” Jung adds. Moreover, the enciphered information is stored on a KAC server on a closed network that cannot be accessed from outside the organization. The security of this server is subject to quarterly inspections by security authorities, including South Korea’s Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs, and its National Intelligence Service.

Future ambitions

There is one more reason KAC chose to partner with Fujitsu. “We were attracted by the fact that we could apply Fujitsu’s technology across other areas of the business,” says Jung. In recent years, PalmSecure technology has become widely used by major Korean banks and credit card companies, as well as by the Korea Financial Telecommunications & Clearings Institute (KFTC). As such, around a million people have already registered their palm vein information with financial companies.

By partnering with such financial industries, KAC plans to establish an ecosystem through which one-time vein registration enables not only identity verification but also currency exchanges and payment services at banks, stores, and duty-free shops at airports. Jung outlines the scenario: “When you register your palm vein, you will be able to issue your boarding pass, check your identity, and also make a payment at duty-free shops through palm vein recognition without any additional registration process.

AC has been working hard to make this a reality. In June 2019, it signed a memorandum of understanding with KFTC and agreed to promote a joint bio-verification system with financial industries. And in July 2020, KAC and the operators of duty-free shops at Jeju International Airport signed a joint agreement on biometric verification. “Currently, purchasing products at duty-free shops requires a boarding pass, identification card and a credit card,” Jung says. “Once the infrastructure connectivity is achieved, people will be able to make payments simply by presenting their palm.” The service is expected to start as early as the end of 2021.

With its expansion of biometric verification services, KAC also plans to take advantage of other cutting-edge technologies, including AI and IoT, says Jung. He points to the typical use of X-rays or CT scanners for security checks for harmful items. “We are now doing research into developing an AI technology that can help with such checks. And if it becomes possible, passengers’ journeys through airports can be even more convenient and fast.”

First published September 2020
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