Exclusive Interview with Vivian Cheung
Smart Departure the Future for Hong Kong’s Air Hub
Hong Kong International Airport is developing via a combination of machine readable passport and facial recognition technology, a “self-service departure” system that will eventually take a passenger from check in to aircraft boarding, with minimal involvement of airport staff, save for the usual security screening of hand baggage and use of body scanners.
Vivian Cheung, deputy director for aviation development for the airport, told Innovation Hong Kong in an interview that self-service departure was part of a worldwide trend in air travel. In Hong Kong’s case, it would also help to manage a huge planned expansion in capacity at the city’s air hub without loss of operational efficiency.“It means we can host even more people in this constrained environment,” she stated.
In October, Hong Kong’s Immigration Department said it was introducing that month what it termed “Smart Departure” from the airport. “Photos of visitors will be taken at arrival clearance counters to assist in authenticating their identities through face recognition technology,” it stated in a press release.The use of such technology comes against the background of a huge surge in air travel across the Asia-Pacific region.
In June the Airport Authority Hong Kong said it would spend HKD7 billion (US$895 million) on upgrading and expanding existing facilities to cope with growing traffic before the proposed launch of the so-called ‘Three Runway System’ or 3RS. The latter will include an aircraft taxiway and an additional passenger building, as well as a third runway. When construction of 3RS began in August 2016, a projected completion date of 2024 was mentioned in an airport press release, and a commissioning date for the third runway itself given as 2022.
The existing airport facility – consisting of Terminals 1 and 2 – is hosting 73 million passengers annually, noted Ms Cheung. The third runway will by itself allow for a further 30 million passengers, although by that time the original terminals will also have expanded the volume of people they handle, indicated Ms Cheung.A consultancy study on the third runway proposal mentioned that a 2015 report from the Authority had put the 3RS capital cost at HKD141.5 billion.
Ms Cheung stressed that the move to self-service departure was not about passengers doing the airport’s work, but part of a worldwide trend. People “don’t want to be bothered” with the current system used at most airports, she suggested.“Right now, you have to take your passport and boarding pass and be checked at least four times. Why? With facial recognition the door can be opened for you,” she noted.“I think the younger generation is very relaxed about this. The older generations might have some hesitation,” she told Innovation Hong Kong.
Self-service departure is being introduced in stages. Self-check in has been available for some time, either online or via a self-help kiosk at the airport. Within a few months, passengers will be able also to print their baggage tags at such kiosks, said Ms Cheung. Currently tag printing must be done at the baggage drop counters.
The self-help kiosks already have the capacity to scan machine-readable passports. The next phase of self-service departure – designed to verify that the holder of the passenger paperwork is the actual person flying – is use of facial recognition technology.
The airport will have a prototype of the system it plans to use, “probably in May or June,” said Ms Cheung.“There will then be a few months for the entire industry to test it out first… airline passengers will test whether the procedure’s correct. Then we will do a mass implementation from an October timeframe,” she added.
Once people have had their facial features captured on the database, they will be able to pass the first-stage security check via channels equipped with facial scanners. Hand baggage checks and body scanner screenings will continue as before. As mentioned, facial recognition technology is also being added to the immigration clearance stage.“By 2019, we will be able to implement it for the boarding gates,” said Ms Cheung, referring to facial recognition.
There will be several ways for passengers to register their facial information on the database for the first time. They include: by approaching airport security staff authorised to use equipment for the purpose; or via self-help kiosks that have a facial capture function.For those passengers that need what Ms Cheung terms “full service”, there will be “eventually though not immediately… a camera at the service desk and they will be able to capture your face there,” she explained.
On the issue of personal privacy, she stated: “Regarding whether the passenger – the customer – likes the fact their face is being captured; I think this is always about options. We will facilitate the option that if people don’t like that, there will always be a channel with a human in attendance.”
On the issue of whether facial recognition technology was good enough to give the public confidence it could be used effectively for airport security, Ms Cheung said: “People have asked me, ‘How are you going to identify twins or people who have had plastic surgery?’ “It always gets back to the question ‘Is it [the technology] better than a human being?’ In the event of an identical twin say using his brother’s passport, not even a human would be able to recognise that fact,” she suggested.
“A machine might also have a problem [in that scenario]. But current statistics show a machine is better than the human eye, for recognising very small differences [between people]. With plastic surgery, unless you change the bone structure of your face, the identification [via facial recognition] should be effective,” said Ms Cheung.“We didn’t invent this technology… All the international bodies are behind us. Everyone will be working to make this perfect,” she stated.
Hong Kong International Airport was already one of the most efficient large hubs and wanted to stay that way, even after expansion, said Ms Cheung.“We only require people to arrive 40 minutes before their flight… A lot of international airports require you to be there two hours before… Our security queuing standard is 4.5 minutes. For a lot of other places it is 15 minutes. So the constraint in the end, is the walking distance to the gates, it’s not the process any more,” she noted.
One issue for ‘on-time’ efficiency of flights out of Hong Kong has been the management of airspace in mainland China. Many Hong Kong-originating flights either fly over or are bound for the mainland.Ms Cheung told us in response to a question regarding flight delays: “On-time performance is a big issue for many airports… In China, in the past five years there has been a realisation of this issue.”
She added: “With many of the big [mainland] airports, if you go online and their on-time performance, in 2016, it was about 40 percent to 50 percent. Now it’s gone up to 75 percent or 85 percent. The first thing they [the authorities] did to those airports, was to say: ‘If you cannot produce a certain level of on-time performance, we are not going to give you new slots; we’re not going to assign routes to you’.”
At Hong Kong International Airport, operational improvements include use of driverless vehicles on the airport apron for “airside efficiency”. The airport has also been using digital technology for staff training, and digitally-gathered data to assist in areas such as business development projection and analysis and facility design; as well as business-to-consumer functions such as the airport’s app for personal mobile devices.
Ms Cheung told Innovation Hong Kong that currently 17 million people per year cross from mainland China in order to use Hong Kong International Airport. The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau (HKZM) Bridge across the Pearl River Delta is due to open this year, offering a new route for mainland-originating travellers.
Initially, the airport will allow a check-through system for baggage of passengers departing from the mainland by bus and using the bridge to get to the airport. Within approximately three years of the HKZM Bridge opening, the airport plans to construct a smaller bridge linking the big structure to the airport’s SkyPier.When that is completed, airport-bound bus passengers travelling via the HKZM Bridge and intending to fly from HKIA will be able to complete their immigration procedures at the point of bus departure.
This will mean they will not need to clear Hong Kong immigration prior to flying out of the airport. A similar system is currently in operation for airport-bound ferry services docking directly at SkyPier.“Once that is in place, the people arriving by bus via the bridge over Pearl River Delta, will only need to get out of the bus once it is inside the airport,” said Ms Cheung.