Self-service boarding cards take off

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What could be simpler? As you check out of the hotel using a self-service express kiosk you swipe your frequent flyer card to print out the boarding pass for your next destination. At the airport there is a drop-off point for luggage and then it is straight to the aircraft: no queues, no hassles. Easy.

This is no futurist dream, but reality at a Holiday Inn in Duluth, Georgia. The trial, which started earlier this year, allows guests heading for Atlanta airport to produce their boarding cards for Delta Airways and AirTrans flights.

“Around 30 per cent of guests are using the kiosk in some way,” says Mark Snyder, senior vice-president of brand management for Holiday Inn Hotels and Resorts in the Americas. “Of those around 18 per cent are printing out boarding passes. The system is most popular with business travellers during weekdays.”

Later this year Holiday Inn plans to promote the technology - developed with Micros Systems and Kinetics (a division of NCR) - to its global franchisees. “The pilot has gone very well and fits well with our strategy of giving more convenience and control to travellers,” says Mr Snyder.

“The system enables self-service check-in to be completed within two minutes,” adds Michael Webster, NCR’s vice-president and general manager, self service. “Consumers are starved of time and each typically spends 100 hours a year standing in queues - self-service systems not only free up time but also deliver a consistent experience.”

While self-check-in kiosks have been familiar at airports since the late 1990s, most are airline specific with non-standard interfaces and protocols. Some require passengers to swipe frequent flyer cards, others the credit card used to make the original booking or else passengers need to key in ticket codes or other ID - all of which can be confusing for users. Kiosks have also tended to be placed close to conventional check-in desks adding to congestion in busy airports. Common use self-service (CUSS) kiosks - operating to an industry standard - are seen by many as an ideal solution. These tend to be managed by the airport and - thanks to broadband Wi-Fi networks - can also be more easily placed in car parks, railway stations or other off-site locations.

Frankfurt Airport goes live with its CUSS kiosks this month and airport operator, Fraport, expects at least half its travellers to be using the units by 2010. The project is unusual in that instead of Fraport running the scheme, it is being managed by a community of 42 airlines using the airport. “CUSS is a further building block in simplifying passenger travel,” says Michael Schwarz, infrastructure manager in the traffic and terminal management division at Fraport. “It is a quick and safe process.”

Just as check-in staff ask those standard questions about sharp objects and baggage security, so too does the kiosk providing a digital record of the replies. Passengers at Frankfurt can print out their boarding passes at any kiosk for any of the participating airlines, including Lufthansa, Air France and KLM. Any baggage is then left at the drop off point where it is screened through an X-ray machine.

Athens International Airport (AIA) has been using CUSS since its redevelopment in the run-up to last year’s Olympics. “Around 15-20 per cent of passengers use the kiosks,” says Fotis Karonis, chief information officer at AIA. “Some airlines have experimented with printing baggage tags as well as boarding passes but passengers don’t always apply the tags correctly, which can lead to problems so until that can be improved drop-off points are better.”

Athens airport also uses Cisco’s Intelligent Airport Solution with a single infrastructure for voice, data and video, based on IP [Internet protocol] standards. There are more than 100 wireless LAN access points and IP telephony will ultimately be extended to cover the entire complex. Both staff and passengers have easy internet access via laptops and PDAs while IP telephones at checkpoint gates brings immediate computer access to all areas.

During peak travel times for the Olympics, the airport was able to install mobile check-in units to cope with tour groups at any location in the airport - as well as at the Olympic Village 35 km away where teams could be checked in prior to their departure for the airport.

“Once we have a standard European biometric passport then these can also be checked at the CUSS terminals to authenticate travellers,” adds Fotis Karonis. “With biometric ID then the frequent flyer card could easily become the transport document for domestic travel. That could cut down time to board even further.”

An additional benefit of self-service is that passengers can check in whenever they like - at Frankfurt that could be up to 24 hours before the flight, while Athens has found that encouraging people to arrive three or four hours before their flight, with immediate check-in, also increases sales for the airport’s shops and restaurants.

United Airlines in the US has carried this flexibility even further allowing passengers to check in and print their boarding passes from a home PC via the company website, a resource British Airways is also marketing heavily in 2005.

United’s Easy Check kiosks, introduced in 1999, are now in 108 airports - mostly in the US, although airports in Japan and Vietnam have also been added this year and usage rates are high. The system, developed by IBM and Kinetics, allows travellers to upgrade tickets, rebook flights and change seats from those they requested when checking in from home.

And the future? With fingerprint ID linked to the reservation system and biometric readers which display flight and seat numbers, who needs a boarding pass?

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