By Erika Fry, reporter
Fortune -- Imagine that you step off a 15-hour international flight with plans to zip right through immigration thanks to your membership in the government-run Global Entry program -- only to find that the scanner can't read your fingerprints.
In that scenario, the conventional wisdom at FlyerTalk, an online forum for frequent travellers, is to press your finger on an oily patch of skin (yours or someone else's) and try again. That may sound like a crude way to get to a piece of expensive, widely used government technology to work in 2013, but take comfort: A new generation of scanners may be landing in your airports soon.
Cross Match Technologies, the Florida-based manufacturer of the scanning equipment used by the Global Entry program, has recently begun production of a more user-friendly machine designed to better deal with the challenges posed by the finicky human fingerprint. (Cross Match also supplies scanners to the Office of Biometrics Information Management, which uses 3,000 of its machines at entry and exit ports to collect fingerprints.)
A spokesperson for Global Entry would not provide specifics about the program's plans to implement the new scanners, saying only that the U.S. Department of Customs and Border Protection, which runs Global Entry, is "always evaluating the condition and service life of the equipment in the field" and that it will "replace current models with updated models as older units begin to fade."
Global Entry is a trusted traveler program that allows its 1.5 million globetrotting members to pass straight through immigration without the line or long wait at an unmanned kiosk. Enrolled travellers simply scan their passport, scan their fingerprints, and fly on by.
The program, which launched in 2008, has received widespread, ecstatic acclaim -- tweets like "Global Entry is the best money ever spent" are not uncommon, nor is wonder that federal government has created something that works so well. John Wagner, the program's director, says he often hears: "I can't believe the government is running this program!"
That strong word of mouth is driving new growth: Applications to Global Entry averaged about 15,000 per month prior to 2012 but are now averaging around 50,000 per month. The program is also catching on as a perk -- American Express (AXP), for example, covers the $100 fee for its Platinum and Centurion card customers. Wagner expects Global Entry will one day extend to 15 to 20% of all travelers.
Yet for all the enthusiasm, the program has been dogged by complaints from a vocal if tiny minority of members who have had trouble getting the scanners to read their prints. When this happens, the kiosk prints out an X. That printout allows the individual to cut any normal immigration line (or in some cases go to a special Global Entry problem line). But he or she must still be cleared by an agent like everyone else, rather than cruising straight through immigration altogether.
Marcia Dohrn, a VP at a trucking company in Rock Island, Ill. who has been enrolled in Global Entry for the past six months, nearly missed her connecting flight to Costa Rica when she got stuck in an immigration line -- she cut the line, but it didn't move -- after her prints wouldn't scan. Though she generally likes the program, the moment gave her pause: "I paid $100 for this?"
The issue has been a topic of discussion at travel sites like TripAdvisor and FlyerTalk and fodder for New York Times business travel columnist Joe Sharkey, whose otherwise glowing review of Global Entry included an anecdote of failing the fingerprint scan until he wet his fingers on the sweaty forehead of the customs agent. (Closer to home, Fortune editor Andy Serwer also had problems getting the scanner to register his fingerprints when applying to the Global Entry program.)
What's going on?
Experts estimate that 1 to 4% of the population have fingerprints that are too faint to be read by machines. There are certain groups that are more likely to have trouble: those who have worked with chemicals or done years of manual labor, or people who have dry skin or dermatitis.
That makes the airport, where passengers debark from hours of international jet travel -- seated in a cabin where air humidity is as low as 5% -- an especially challenging environment for reading fingerprints. (Hence the utility of the sweaty forehead.)
Yet it's not always faint fingerprints that are the problem. The machines must be pressed just so, with fingers laid flat in the correct position and applying a particular amount of pressure. Issues also arise when the scanners are not cleaned -- a procedure that is done daily by laying a piece of sticky tape on the scanning plate, according to Wagner. At kiosks, individuals get two chances to get it right before they get an X and are sent to the immigration officer.
These failures do not pose security risks, just extra work for customs agents and inconvenience for faint-fingered or dehydrated Global Entry members. Stephanie Malin, a public affairs officer with the program says their machines have a 3% fail rate. And Joy Smith, Director at the International Biometric Group, says her organization's tests of government machines have shown a 1 to 5% fail rate –- making them as good or better as anything in the market.
Cross Match's new machines, which are currently being demoed by a number of customers, take aim at these issues and should improve performance. The new scanners provide guidance to kiosk users like "press harder" and are designed to capture images of either wet or dry fingers. The scanning plate also is kept at a warm temperature to soften the skin and make it more amenable to reading. (The Cross Match machines currently being used also have silicone pads that are supposed to help with dry fingers.)
Anil Jain, a professor of computer science at Michigan State University who works with the Biometric Research Group, says some degree of error comes with the territory in identity scanning. "It's sort of a nuisance, but when it comes to biometrics, every sensing device has an issue," he says. Iris recognition can be complicated by droopy eyelids, and facial recognition by bad lighting and aging. Multi-spectral fingerprinting -- which reads vein patterns and is used by Disney World -- does not integrate with the massive U.S. database of digitized fingerprints.
Wagner, the Global Entry Director, acknowledges the possibility that iris and facial recognition technology might ultimately offer better performance. The government has started to look at them for a backup to fingerprints, but he says it will be a while before a new system is adopted and integrated into the system.
Until then, travelers with faint fingerprints will have to keep using their sweaty foreheads, or hope the new machines arrive soon.
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