Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Technology changes the check-in desk

A better title might be Technology gets rid of the check-in desk, because that’s pretty much what Air New Zealand is doing for domestic passengers.

Today on Radio New Zealand National I talked about this and how it works. Read on for my speaking notes or download the audio as ogg or mp3.
Today what I really want to talk about is the technology around airline check-ins.

Q: Air New Zealand has just changed to a fancy new system.

A: Yes, it has, and I came through Auckland domestic on the first morning of the new system the Sunday before last.

Q: How did that go?

A: A few teething problems, I’m afraid, but lots of staff on hand to sort them out.

You’ve been able to check in online at Air New Zealand and lots of airlines for some time. You go onto their website, you choose a seat, and you print a boarding pass. Of course, this relies on you having a printer, which I generally don’t when I’m away, and the check in only works a few days before the flight so for the return leg it’s not much help.

But why do you need a paper boarding pass at all? What Air New Zealand has done is to provide a mobile phone application, so that a suitably equipped phone can download a boarding pass and display the pass on its screen. Then you just need to show the phone to the pass reader at the aircraft gate.

Q: Does this actually work?

A: It’s supposed to. I wasn’t able to check it because – wait for it – doesn’t work on the iPhone, which is easily the fastest selling smart phone in New Zealand. I think it may be the fastest selling phone of any kind in this country. Air New Zealand assure me that it will be available on an iPhone, but probably not until early next year.

Q: If you’ve got the right kind of phone, what happens?

A: If you don’t have bags, you are supposed to be able to just go to the gate at the airport and get straight on the plane. That’s one new way of getting on the plane – by using your mobile phone.

But wait, there’s more: Air New Zealand have also sent a lot of their customers a small electronic pass – called an RFID, or Radio Frequency Identifier, that they are encouraging us to glue to our mobile phones.

Q: So they can track you around the airport?

A: Air NZ is at pains to say no, that’s not what it’s for. They say it can only be read at short range, and it doesn’t contain any personal information – although it presumably contains some kind of unique identifier, probably your air points number, otherwise there’s no point in it.

Q: Are you going to stick one to your mobile?

A: No. I like my phone too much. But if I carry it, it will make all the check-in stuff much easier – just go to the gate and wave the RFID at the reader there.

Q: What if you have bags?

A: You have to go to the check in area and there’s a machine which prints your bag tags. I don’t know whether you have stick your bag tags on your self or whether there are staff to help you.

Q: This all sounds like a lot more self service.

A: That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. This way, you get what seats you want. Before, all we did was queue for a check-in clerk to key our details into a computer system and give us a boarding pass. Now we deal with the computer system ourselves. That’s part of an overall trend, not just in airlines. Think banking, for instance.

So, I think it’s overall a positive move. But there are still some fishhooks to come out of it. I believe that security regulations still require you to have a paper copy of your airline ticket on you. That’s an Aviation Security requirement, not an airline one. That partly defeats the point of the system because you still need the paper. Even so, though, I think the Are New Zealand changes sound like a great idea and congratulations to them for having the guts to do it.



Air New Zealand on its electronic boarding passes, and a technology blogger’s take on it. Read the comments if you are interested in how the technology works.

A good article in the New Zealand Herald about the changes.

posted by colin at 2:00 pm  


  1. The way I think about this is that if it were at all possible to bring down planes with mere cellphones or a laptop’s wifi then the airlines would confiscate the devices. That the airlines allow people onboard with all kinds of gadgets shows that even they don’t take this threat seriously. And despite years of talking about this supposed weakness in airplanes we never do hear about Hezbollah sneaking cellphones onboard now do we?

    Of course I’m not saying that people should break the law I”m only meaning to point out puzzling rules.

    On a separate matter there has been an interesting debate lately between Bruce Schneier and the TSA. I particularly like this bit about taking liquids onboard and the exemption for bottles labeled ‘Saline’:

    “Later, Schneier would carry two bottles labeled saline solution — 24 ounces in total — through security. An officer asked him why he needed two bottles. “Two eyes,” he said. He was allowed to keep the bottles.”

    This commentary on the TSAs procedures blew up into responses from the head of the TSA in the latest Schneier newsletter:

    Comment by Matthew Holloway — 21 November 2008 @ 11:36 am

  2. I was recently required, at Singapore airport, to dump the smallest available bottle of contact lens fluid, because it contained 120ml. Hmmm.

    Comment by colin — 21 November 2008 @ 10:34 pm

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