Mobile workers and other travelers finally are heading back to the skies and beginning to use their phones once again as a travel tool. Wireless check-in for airline passengers, an emerging wireless technology for the travel industry, was one of the casualties of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Because of heightened security concerns, many airlines that had started the programs suspended them, while others that had not yet launched services put their plans on hold.
Now that appears to be changing as security measures are tweaked. One airline, Delta Air Lines, resumed its SkyMiles Virtual Check-In Oct. 23, and several other airlines say they plan to revive or begin their programs.
Wireless check-in systems work in two ways. One way is for agents to use wireless handhelds to issue boarding passes or hotel room keys. Another allows customers with proper documentation to check in for a flight using a WAP phone or Palm PDA without going directly to a ticket agent. In both cases, the customer still needs to clear security.
Some airlines and hotel chains, including Wyndham International and Starwood Hotels and Resorts, have been testing or using agent-based wireless check-in systems to shorten lines at registration desks and gates.
Wireless check-in systems that began before Sept. 11–intended for passengers who weren't checking luggage–were halted because of overall concerns about airport security. No uniform procedures have been established yet for check-in at airports and airlines nationwide, although the FAA has issued some broad rules that impact wireless check-in (see box at right).
For example, Delta Air Lines' program is available only in those airports where travelers are allowed to use an electronic ticket receipt in conjunction with the airlines' bar-coded Medallion membership card and photo identification. Some airports require boarding passes to go through security, but the Medallion card, which is offered to Delta's premier customers, is intended as a permanent boarding pass.
The federal government never suspended wireless check-in programs, but Delta spokeswoman Cindi Kurczewski says the airline halted the program on its own as an additional security precaution. Delta has since determined that its system is secure. Kurczewski says the only change is Medallion members now must have their e-ticket receipt with them. Delta's system lets passengers use a WAP phone or wireless Palm personal digital assistant to check in up to four hours before their departure time.
Delta also has reinstated curbside check-in at most of its airports, including Atlanta, Cincinnati, Dallas-Fort Worth, Orlando, Fla., New York-LaGuardia and Salt Lake City.
Delta so far is alone in resuming wireless check-in, but a number of other airlines have it on their radar screens. Among them are American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, British Airways and Lufthansa, as well as the travel industry technology company Sabre Holdings.
American Airlines, which turned off its remote check-in service for wireless and wired phones after Sept. 11, plans on resuming it as soon as the airline is convinced it is fully compliant with security procedures, according to spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan. The service, rolled out systemwide in July, was offered to the airlines' Gold, Platinum and Executive Platinum frequent fliers.
Alaska Airlines, one of the first to offer wireless check-in, expects to resume the service soon, according to spokesman Jack Walsh. The program was available for all of the airlines' customers who used WAP phones or Palm OS devices. "Percentage-wise, the usage was limited, but it was growing and we look forward to getting back to it," he says.
The German carrier Lufthansa continues to use its m-Barq wireless check-in service at its airport in Frankfurt but had not yet offered the system in the United States before Sept. 11, a spokesperson says. Plans for a U.S. launch now are on hold.
The Lufthansa service for frequent flyers allows WAP phone users to receive a bar code image on their phone instead of a ticket number, as well as enabling them to select their seats. The bar code is scanned at an airport kiosk to receive a boarding pass.
United Airlines does not yet offer wireless check-in, although customers can use their WAP phones or PDAs to book flights, view itineraries and receive notifications of flight delays.
Sabre Holdings, based in Dallas, is developing one of the most intriguing wireless check-in systems. The system, created in partnership with Impulsity Inc., uses voice biometrics and bar codes to identify passengers and sends boarding passes to their wireless devices.
A Sabre spokeswoman says the system is complete and a prototype has been built for American Airlines, but no decision has been made on deploying it. "We have to go with the FAA guidelines," she says. "If they OK voice biometrics, then we'll use it. If not, we will have to revamp the program."
Passengers using the system would register their voice prints with airlines. The voice print would be used to verify the passenger's identity before he or she was issued a boarding pass. Swissair has tested a similar system in Zurich.