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Innovation in a zero-risk environment: Facial recognition experiment at Helsinki Airport

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This paper sets out a strategic template for innovating in zero-risk environments such as modern airports. For the purpose of the paper, a zero-risk environment is defined as one where damage, disruption or systemic failure can result in irreversible consequences. The paper starts by outlining a facial recognition experiment conducted by Finavia, Finnair and digital engineering and innovation consultancy Futurice at Helsinki Airport during 2017. It explores whether the widespread introduction of biometrics can speed up the passage of consumers through airports, thus heading off a predicted capacity crunch at major hubs. It then uses the experience and outcomes of the Helsinki experiment to address the broader innovation theme, making reference to other technological advances in the sector. While it is tempting for airports to focus on biometrics as an efficiency tool, a key line of argument in the paper is the need to focus on customer experience and ensure employee buy-in when trialling innovations in high-risk environments. With customer experience likely to become a key differentiator for airports and airlines, it advocates a machine+human approach as opposed to a machine versus human approach. At the same time, it discusses the advantages of keeping the experiment phase lean and avoiding operational integration. The Helsinki experiment highlighted the potential for using off-the-shelf technology and developing a mobile-centric experience. This has positive implications in terms of the cost of hardware investment. While focusing on the importance of customer experience, the paper acknowledges that the airline industry places a strong emphasis on proving return-on-investment. As a result, it advocates the development of an innovation business case to help champions within the company argue the case for implementation and integration.
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Keywords: agile; airlines; airports; biometrics; facial recognition experiment; innovation; privacy

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: June 1, 2019

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  • Journal of Airport Management is the essential professional journal publishing in-depth, peer-reviewed articles and real world case studies on airport management, finance, development, ground-handling, airport-airline relations and regulation - with no advertising or sales pitches.

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