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Stepping closer to "Tap N' Fly"

Published on  21 November by Renaud Irminger , Director, SITA Lab
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IATA and the NFC Forum released the "NFC Reference Guide for Air Travel" a few weeks ago. It's great to see this unanimous claim about the benefits that a technology such as NFC can bring to all stakeholders in the air transport industry.

Back in 2012, SITA Lab proposed a universal NFC Boarding Pass container specification - an industry standard based on common-use - that would foster interoperability, be cost effective and deliver more paperless travel. So we are particularly pleased to see the two key conclusions highlighted in the new guide.

The guide's first recommendation is to adopt the specification of a Universal NFC Boarding Pass Container. But what does this mean exactly?

This "container" could be described as a passenger's mobile travel wallet where boarding passes issued by any airline can be stored on the passenger's mobile phone in a structured way. Today, there's fragmentation in the way boarding passes are stored and organized for passengers. Whenever passengers travel with different airlines, they need to adapt to each airline. They have to know where to find the mobile boarding pass for each airline, and then how to access that boarding pass in order to show it whenever necessary, for example at security or the boarding gate.

A Universal - or 'common use' - NFC Boarding Pass Container would allow passengers to store several boarding passes in the same place, regardless of the airline. Thanks to NFC, the contextual environment (location and time) will automatically select the appropriate boarding pass from the common use container for presentation to the authorities. So, the passenger flying DUB-LHR-SIN will be presented with only the LHR-SIN pass when in LHR, and not the DUB-LHR one, just by tapping his/her phone on a reader. This is a fantastic opportunity at two levels:

  1. It delivers economies of scale - Airlines do not need to each develop their own container and proprietary structure as the same one can be used by all airlines.
  2. It's a real paradigm change - passengers don't need to worry about finding their boarding pass and will no longer struggle to show the right one to the agent when holding multiple (boarding passes). Having your phone is all that you need to be concerned about.

The second recommendation is about leveraging the existing Bar Coded Boarding Pass (BCBP) standard. This will allow NFC Boarding Pass information to be displayed in bar code format, making it compatible with all optical readers already in use across the world today. This gives airports and airlines the opportunity to transition smoothly, and independently of each other, while gradually exchanging readers to offer full benefits of NFC to their passengers.

More than that, it ensures that no change is required in the systems lying behind the readers. Indeed, NFC readers enable complete passenger convenience, seamlessly reading NFC boarding passes and translating them into the standard BCBP format as expected by the underlying systems (for example, Departure Control Systems and lounge applications).

Foundations for the future

The combination of IATA's two recommendations is the foundation for a true common-use and interoperable NFC solution across the globe.

SITA has been working in this direction for more than two years and has developed both of IATA's recommended items.

We believe we need to go even further. The air transport industry needs a clearly recognized logo, similar to those developed in the payment industry, so that users can easily spot where they can simply tap their phones to present their boarding pass - or as we propose the Tap n' Fly logo:

Current mobile boarding passes are very cumbersome, because they've not been developed with a true mobile centric approach. They're simply a piece of paper displayed on a smartphone, as the SITA Lab outlined in a previous blog.

The 2013 SITA/ATW Airline IT Trends Survey predicts a strong increase in purchases made from mobile devices and the industry should be ready to provide a full end-to-end mobile experience to these passengers, using true mobile technologies. The new IATA and NFC Forum recommendations take us a step closer to that new reality for travelers. They are truly a foundation for the future because a common use travel wallet is also the right place to store other passenger data such as frequent flyer cards, special offers or coupons, for example.

Lastly, it should be easy for airlines to issue NFC boarding passes, as well as other mobile boarding passes format. Thankfully, this is simple to do with the generic Boarding Pass API from developer.aero.

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