NFC Takes Flight With Air France at Toulouse Blagnac Airport

By Claire Swedberg

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.

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French Airline Air France KLM has launched a six-month pilot at Toulouse Blagnac Airport enabling participating frequent flyers to employ Near Field Communication (NFC) technology built into their mobile phones, and NFC readers installed around the airport to move quickly through security, into a lounge and onto their planes destined for Paris. SITA Lab, an air transport industry technology company, is providing project management, as well as NFC boarding pass specifications and a cardlet—an applet that runs on a subscriber identity module (SIM) card—and back-end services, to deliver data over the air. Mobile network provider Orange is supplying SIM cards and network connections, while airport data systems firm RESA is providing the NFC readers throughout the airport. Air France is supplying the Touch&Pass phone app used by eligible passengers to request delivery of the cardlet, and then (at the airport) to retrieve the correct boarding pass matching the departure date and airport stored on the SIM card.

Once the pilot has been completed at the end of this year, Air France and its project partners plan to review the results, based on responses from users regarding how much the solution may have improved travelers’ experiences at the airport.

When a participating passenger proceeds through Toulouse Blagnac Airport’s security line, he presents his boarding pass by simply tapping his phone against the RFID reader.

The project got its start approximately three years ago, says Renaud Irminger, SITA Lab’s senior project portfolio director, when SITA began working with Orange to create an NFC-based system for use by airlines and airports. SITA Lab set up a demonstration area at its Geneva headquarters, where SITA and Orange researchers could develop and demonstrate a Touch&Pass solution for use by passengers traveling by air.

Toulouse Blagnac Airport agreed to conduct an onsite test of the technology two years ago, consisting of NFC readers (installed at the parking lot entrance, at the fast lane for security checks and at the VIP lounge’s entrance), as well as Air France’s NFC-based app, developed by SITA Lab, that enabled BlackBerry phone users who are also Orange network subscribers to tap their phones against readers for faster access to a specific area. Airport management utilized their own BlackBerry phones as well—not only to access the lounges, but also to make any changes to the software formatting.

SITA Lab’s Renaud Irminger

Not long after the pilot began, however, the airport replaced its BlackBerry phones with Apple iPhones for management. What’s more, the airport determined that the NFC system would not be viable, since managers required access to the readers as well, which could not be accomplished with iPhones since they do not come with NFC readers.

Next, SITA Lab and Orange began working to create a boarding pass solution intended for airline use. Air France agreed to take part in the pilot, which launched late last month. The pilot commenced with an e-mail sent to Air France’s VIP passengers and frequent flyers, inviting them to participate if they owned an NFC-enabled Android smartphone and traveled frequently between Toulouse and Paris. Because RESA already provided equipment to read bar-code boarding passes, SITA Lab and Orange worked with the company to develop an NFC solution.

RESA installed HID Global‘s OmniKey NFC readers at 25 read points, including at security lines, a VIP lounge and boarding gates, and also supplied the firmware to manage the reader data based on specifications created by SITA Lab. Orange provides a SIM card that is plugged into the phone to enable the cardlet to store a boarding pass or other data without consuming a large amount of power. With the SIM card, the phone can be turned off, or running on very low battery capacity, and still provide the boarding pass data to a reader.

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.