If you are a regular reader of ‘Dashboard’, my automotive column in ThePrint, you would know that I travel a fair bit across India. As a frequent domestic flyer, I spend far too much time stuck in security queues, the long wait to enter the airport terminal where your identity card and ticket or boarding pass are scrutinised, almost always, by a fresh recruit in the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF).
CISF jawans do a great job, but given the near crush-load at peak hours at major Indian airports such as Delhi or Bengaluru, they are often overwhelmed. And of course, infrequent flyers don’t know the drill.
So even after entering the airport, the queue to pass the security check can take an hour. If you’re unfortunate enough to fly in the morning or in the evening rush hour, it can take up to a couple of hours.
Enter DigiYatra, the new facial recognition app launched by the government. It links your face, Aadhaar number and your boarding pass and allows you to cut the queue. Earlier this year, I had tried the Digiyatra demonstration at Kempegowda International Airport in Bengaluru but that was specifically for a certain Vistara flight to Delhi. It worked well but it wasn’t a fully developed app at the time. I still had to enter my facial identity and have my boarding pass and Aadhaar card verified by a CISF officer.
But from 2 December, Bengaluru, Delhi Terminal 3 and Hyderabad airports have fully integrated DigiYatra. Since I was travelling to Bengaluru to drive the new Toyota Innova Hycross, I thought I would try out the app.
Cutting queues, saving time
A day before my flight, I downloaded the app on my iPhone and linked my Aadhaar number. Since the app was clunky, it took me multiple attempts. After scanning my boarding pass, I was set for travel the next day.
Knowing how long security queues are at Terminal 3 of New Delhi airport, even in the middle of the day, I booked a 2 pm flight. But I still reached the airport before noon since I did not want to take a chance in case DigiYatra did not work.
Outside the departure level of T3, at gate 2, I walked up to the Digiyatra help desk to show a group of rather impressed helpers that I’d already got the app and done everything. They helped me share my boarding pass on the system — that is not something you can do much in advance. I walked past a group of passengers who were clearly unhappy with me. They thought I was the lowest of the low — a queue cutter who doesn’t ask permission. When I told them what I was doing, they showed curiosity.
I walked up to the DigiYatra installation — there is only one at Gate 2, Delhi T3 departures — and as my face scanned, all my details popped up immediately and I was let through. The CISF jawan was also mightily impressed, but the gentleman who had wanted to chide me just asked, “kaunse app store pe hai” (which app store is it available in?), and I replied, “dono” (both). The DigiYatra app is available on both Apple and Google app stores.
DigiYatra saved me at least 15-20 minutes at the terminal entry but its greatest trick remained — the security queue. An assistant took me all the way to the start of the queue, just like they would take someone on the list of security exempted individuals. It saved me 30-45 minutes but that was it. Unlike the ‘PreCheck’ service offered by the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) in the United States, I don’t get to go through security with my bag zipped up. I still have to painstakingly remove my belt, jacket, laptop, power banks and other assorted electronic items. But I have a personal system in place for all that now, so it was rather easy.
I had reached the airport with two hours in hand, just in case I needed to do things the old-fashioned way. But thanks to DigiYatra, I at least saved a good hour of my time. During the morning or evening rush hour, I would have saved two hours easily. Sure, it is a bit clunky, but just like DigiLocker, DigiYatra is a massive step forward for a ‘Digital India.’
DigiYatra security concern
Now the question is whether you are willing to sacrifice your biometric data for convenience. As a frequent flier, my answer is yes. Time spent in queues is time wasted. All you do standing in line is stare endlessly at Instagram and Twitter anyway. Also, let us not pretend that the security agencies do not use fairly advanced facial recognition technology inside the terminal, and a lot of other places. It might make you uncomfortable, but it is the truth.
The DigiYatra app developers have said that all data will be wiped clean and nothing sensitive will be stored, and that is a welcome assurance. That said, as more people start using DigiYatra, I’m sure that the queues at the app counter will also grow immensely.
@kushanmitra is an automotive journalist based in New Delhi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Ratan Priya)