Jumping the queue: Mobile phone check in

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Airlines and airports are beginning to use mobile phone technology for checking in and even boarding passengers, but will it become as universal as the self-service kiosk?

While passengers in many parts of the world are still getting accustomed to using self-service kiosks, domestic passengers in Germany and Japan are already using mobile phones to bypass kiosks altogether and go straight to the security queue. Japan Airlines (JAL) has quietly been checking in and boarding passengers with mobile phones equipped with Integraed Circuit (IC) chips since early 2005. All Nippon Airways (ANA) began using IC radio frequency technology in September 2006. Germany's DBA started trials in early 2006 of a separate technology that also allows passengers with mobile phones to go straight to the security queue.

In all three cases it is a 100% paper­less solution - not even a kiosk- or computer-printed boarding pass is required. The boarding pass is read from mobile phones using special scanners.

But is this the future? The technologies at DBA, ANA and JAL have not received much attention internationally partly because paperless boarding is not realistic at most airports given today's high-secure airport environment

"This technology has been developed for use on our domestic routes," says Ko Yoshida, JAL's vice-president of domestic market planning. "There are many issues to overcome - mobile phone technology, passenger identification etc - to introduce it overseas. This technology is not common overseas."

Mobile phone boarding solutions are only feasible in Germany and Japan because neither requires identity checks for domestic flights. Japan also has a unique mobile phone technology that is not compatible with the rest of the world. Yoshida says JAL does not have any plans to expand its Touch & Go check-in and boarding service to any international flights.

Overseas interest

ANA manager passenger services planning Taiichi Nomura says the carrier will look at extending its SKIP service to international airports although it may have to be adjusted because the environment is different overseas. "We have had a great deal of interest from our overseas partner airlines, including Star Alliance, but no particular requests to sell it to any," says Nomura.

In most countries, passengers checking in with mobile phones still must go to the kiosk or counter to receive their boarding passes, or print off their boarding passes before they get to the airport using personal computers. SITA senior portfolio marketing manager Dominique El Bez says only a few airlines have so far implemented mobile check-in solutions using proprietary barcode boarding (BCBPs) passes they have developed. But he says most airport and outbound immigration authorities do not accept electronic BCBPs so passengers using mobile check-in with carriers such as Air Canada, Alaska Airlines, Scandinavian Airlines and Southwest Airlines still have to go to a touch point such as a kiosk or agent to get a paper boarding pass. "This extra step is a limiting factor to the mass adoption of mobile phone check-in. But looking to the future we can be very optimistic as there is work under way with IATA to get a BCBP standard that is compatible with mobile devices," says El Bez.

Unisys also believes mobile phones are a promising solution for checking in passengers, but not for boarding passengers. Unisys has developed a solution that allows airports or airlines to check in passengers with mobile phones using a new breed of self-service devices it claims are less expensive and more efficient than existing kiosks. Passengers will not be able to go straight to the security queue, but Urs von Euw, vice-president of airport solutions at Unisys, says its solution is "available instantaneously to all passengers", including in countries requiring identity checks.

The Unisys solution proposes departure hall lobby "quick service points" reading any standard GSM phone using one of its three unique identification numbers. The quick service points, equipped with a scanner known as the EXIO manufactured by Germany's Gavitec, is able to read from the phone a 2D graphical identifier containing the passengers' booking information and print off a "mobile boarding pass".

"It's a brand new concept. We're just selling it now," says von Euws, who adds several airports and ground handing companies have expressed interest in testing it in 2007.

"In principle it's ready. It's the concept that's new. Not the technology," he says. "Once I have the first customer using it, in reality it will be a showcase and people will intuitively understand the benefits of the system."

Unisys has borrowed the technology from the retail industry. Gavitec already produces the EXIO for retail shops, which use it to read coupons that are sent to the mobile phones of potential customers as a new marketing method known as mobile marketing.

Airports or airlines do not have to acquire EXIO scanners to implement a mobile phone check-in solution. Existing kiosks can be upgraded without Unisys to read mobile phones. But von Euws claims the savings mobile phone technology offers airlines - up to $3.70 per passenger - can only be fully realised by purchasing self-service systems that exclusively accept mobile phones. He says Unisys's quick-service points cost $1,500 a unit and can process a passenger and print out a boarding pass in only five seconds. Standard kiosks cost over $10,000 and take at least 30 seconds to process a passenger, he says.

While passengers can now bypass kiosks by checking in online and printing their boarding passes on personal computers, von Euws believes mobile solutions will be widely used because passengers do not always have computer access, but always carry mobile phones. This is especially true in developing countries, where many airports have not yet introduced kiosks and can leapfrog the self-service technologies of the last decade and go straight to mobile phone solutions.

"We opened a whole world for these guys," says von Euws, adding that several African airports expressed interest in the Unisys solution after receiving a demonstration in November at the Airports Council International world general assembly in Cape Town, where it was exhibited for the first time.

According to a SITA passenger self-service survey, 83% of passengers already carry a mobile phone when travelling. But SITA says about only one of every 500 passengers now use mobile phones to check in. Given the widespread use of mobile phones and the technology they bring, mobile check-in "represents a great opportunity".

Says El Bez: "Previously there was only one check-in channel - the desk. But now we have kiosks, web and mobile phone check-in channels. The question is which one is going to replace the good old desk? The answer is likely to be all of them, with more to come."

ANA and JAL, both of which developed their solutions in-house, say they are already studying new technologies, but decline to provide details. Considering Japan is a hotbed for new development it would not be surprising if the next generation of self-service solutions again starts with the Japanese carriers.

Mobile phone connectivity

JAL's kiosks began using IC-equipped mobile phones to check in passengers in February 2005. At the same time, it introduced Touch & Go at four domestic airports. Within two months it was expanded to 44 domestic airports. "The number of users of Touch & Go has been steadily increasing since introduction and has already run into the millions," says Yoshida.

JAL declines to provide specific user data, including what portion of Touch & Go passengers use the service with mobile phones and what portion use it with IC-equipped credit and frequent flier cards. ANA is more revealing, saying 10,000 to 15,000 customers use its SKIP service every day. But Nomura says only 15% use SKIP via their mobile phones. SKIP is now available at 24 airports, where 140 scanners manufactured by Omron Scientific Technologies have been installed, and will be available at all ANA domestic airports by April.

DBA's new parent, Air Berlin, says only about 100 DBA passengers each month check in with their mobile phones. "It's still a test," Air Berlin says. "We only have it on the Hanover-Munich route and we haven't done any marketing on it."

It adds the service can only be used by passengers with phones equipped with a multi-media messaging service (MMS), which are not common yet in Germany. DBA, which developed its solution in-house, bought the initial batch of scanners for Hanover and Munich from Germany's DESKO.

Air Berlin refuses to buy more scanners buy says it is encouraging other German airports to buy the same scanner. It says Stuttgart has already agreed to install scanners and Nuremberg may follow. It hopes to eventually extend the service to the full Air Berlin and DBA domestic network.

JAL has installed about 500 IC scanners, using radio frequency technology, at security areas and domestic gates