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NFC Takes Flight With Air France at Toulouse Blagnac Airport

SITA Lab is leading a six-month pilot enabling passengers to move more quickly through security lines, access a VIP lounge and board planes using RFID-readable boarding passes stored on their mobile phones.
By Claire Swedberg

SITA Lab's software platform manages read data received from the readers, in addition to enabling the sending of boarding pass data to an individual's phone via an SMS transaction.

A participant first downloads the Touch&Pass phone app from the Google Play website. Orange checks each participating individual's phone number with the hardware on file for that number, in order to ensure that she has an NFC-enabled phone and a SIM card manufactured within the past two years that would enable the storing of boarding pass data. If she does not, Orange can provide the necessary SIM card.

The Touch&Pass app retrieves the appropriate boarding pass from the phone's SIM card.
The participant is then registered with the system, and her phone number is stored in the SITA software. While preparing for her flight, she accesses the Web-based check-in system on Air France's website and indicates that she would like to receive the boarding pass on her phone. Rather than simply receiving a 2D bar-code-based boarding pass, she receives the NFC-based pass via SMS (SITA Lab's software enables this transaction), and also receives a text message indicating the phone has received the pass.

When a participating passenger arrives at the airport and proceeds through security lines, instead of providing her phone to enable security personnel to scan the boarding pass's bar code, she can simply tap the phone against the RFID reader. This, Irminger says, saves considerable time, since a bar code displayed on a phone's screen can be difficult to scan due to glare. The Touch&Pass app then retrieves the appropriate boarding pass from the SIM card, enabling the passenger to store multiple passes for other trips, to be retrieved on the proper day.

The traveler can then use the phone again at the VIP lounge, and when boarding her flight. Because the SIM card is being used, the boarding pass is stored in the phone in such a way that very little power, if any, is required for the reader to receive it. Many passengers are concerned about storing boarding passes on their phones, Irminger says, because the handsets can lose battery power while traveling. The pilot is aimed at determining how well this low-power problem can be circumvented.

According to Irminger, the research group hopes to attract at least several hundred participants for the pilot, though he says it could accommodate thousands. "What we want to find out," he states, "is, does it help improve the experience for passengers when they can leverage their phones to be paperless" through the arrival and boarding processes. The passengers will be asked their impressions of the system each time they fly.

If the pilot proves to benefit passengers, Irminger says, SITA Lab and the other participants hope to launch full deployments with other airlines. One detractor, he notes, is Apple's lack of NFC technology adoption, since iPhone users represent a large percentage of frequent flyers. "We'll continue to watch what Apple does," he says.

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