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Alaska Airlines launches mobile passport verification for international travelers

By Renata Geraldo, The Seattle Times

Updated: 4 hours ago Published: 4 hours ago

SEATTLE — Alaska Airlines international travelers can now skip one check-in step at the airport: Having an airline agent verify their passports.

Starting Tuesday, the Seattle-based airline is introducing an app that allows travelers with U.S. and Canadian passports to create a digital identity and verify their documents virtually.

The passport verification technology is part of a $2.5 billion three-year investment Alaska Airlines unveiled in April that promises to improve the airport lobby experience. In June, Alaska announced it was eliminating its check-in kiosks and replacing them with self-service bag-tag stations across the country also as part of the initiative.

“The philosophy really is getting guests through the lobby and to security in five minutes or less,” said Tricia Bruckbauer, Alaska’s communications program manager. “We’re going to be relying on new cutting-edge technology and technology that uses biometrics to make that happen.”

[Alaska Airlines nudges passengers to mobile boarding passes]

To use the mobile verification tool, Alaska passengers will have to download an app, Airside, and create a digital identity once during the life span of a passport. The process is simple: Take a face selfie, scan the passport photo page and hold the phone against the inside of the passport’s back cover to read the embedded chip.

The verification, the airline says, happens by scanning the photo page and reading the embedded passport chip. The digital identity is then created, stored on the mobile device and ready to use for future travel.

The selfie is an identifier that will serve other functions as more technologies become available. One example is using facial recognition as one of the tools to send travelers’ checked-in bags from the belt to the airplane. The bag drop-off service will be unveiled at hub airports in Seattle, Anchorage, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles in the spring of 2024.

If travelers have an upcoming Alaska Airlines international flight, they can open the Airside app, and add the departure date, the location and the confirmation code. That leads to a one-time consent to use the user’s digital identity, so travelers don’t have to see an agent.

Agents will be available for passengers who choose not to use the app.

The data will remain encrypted on users’ apps and will only be accessible to Alaska when travelers give the one-time consent. The app vendor does not have access to the database, Bruckbauer said.

Travelers who don’t have U.S. or Canadian passports will still have to see an agent in the lobby, as the technology relies on embedded chips. Mexico began issuing passports with embedded chips last year, so they aren’t as widespread yet, Bruckbauer said.

Alaska has international flights to Canada, Mexico, Belize and Costa Rica. Starting in December, there will be services to Guatemala and the Bahamas.

Alaska’s mobile passport verification isn’t comparable to programs such as TSA Precheck and Global Entry because it only eliminates the step of seeing an airline agent. Passengers still need to go through security and customs.

“We’re looking at the entire journey that we have control over, streamlining where we can,” Bruckbauer said.


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