Even as U.S. carriers launch pilot programs to experiment with cell phone check-in, air travelers in Japan — where electronic gadgetry rules — are using their phones to manage the entire airline experience, beginning with booking flights. And it’s no experiment: Customers of All Nippon Airways (ANA), which holds 60 percent of Japan’s domestic market, have been using mobile devices to do just that since September of 2006.
As long as you have an enabled mobile phone, you can book a flight, see a seating chart of your aircraft, select your seat, have a bar-code and other key travel information e-mailed to your phone — and go to your departure gate just by producing your encrypted cell phone at airport security. A 4-inch-long receipt that looks like it came from a standard cash register and prints out at the security check-point serves as your boarding pass.
Rob Henderson, an ANA public relations manager and expatriated Englishman who has lived in Japan for 11 years, showed me how it works. Henderson and I were at ANA headquarters in Tokyo, sitting in an employee cafeteria sipping coffee, when he pulled out his mobile phone, flipped it open and, thumbs moving in a blur, signed onto the airline’s “ANA Sky Mobil" system.
“I’ll book a flight for both of us," he said, keying in his name, age, passport information, credit card info, phone number and e-mail address; then he did the same for me. On the display panel of his phone, I watched as Japanese characters popped up and Henderson translated. He chose our flight and seats, thumbing on through the system, then went back to his e-mail, saw the just-issued bar code for the flight and reviewed the confirmation information.
Less than an hour later, we tumbled out of a taxi and into the security line at Tokyo Haneda International Airport. When we reached the head of the line, Henderson handed me his phone. “You do it," he said, pointing to a small, flat screen on a console just before the X-ray machine.
I started to flip open the phone. “No need," he said. “The phone’s got an ID chip inside. Just put it down."
So I did. The screen flashed the English letters “OK" and we moved to the X-ray and on through to the retail-therapy zone between security and the departure gates. No muss, very little fuss.
ANA flyers are using this next-generation booking and check-in system at selected major airports: Haneda, Narita, Kansai and Chubu in Japan, and Shanghai Pudong in China. There are some restrictions: Customers traveling with infants under 2 years old, passengers on code-share flights operated by other airlines, or people traveling on a group tour ticket can’t use the system. Passengers who prefer to use travel agents or manage their flights on their personal computers can still do so.
Prospects for the U.S.
When, I wondered, are air travelers in the United States going to have a similar system at their disposal?
Not just yet, airline analysts say, though several U.S. carriers are trying out new systems customized for use on personal cell phones. Continental Airlines, for example, started in December a three-month trial of cell phone check-in for customers flying out of George Bush International Airport in Houston.
In January, American Airlines launched aa.com/mobile, a system for personal cell phones that enables users to find information on fares and schedules, use frequent flyer miles, get flight status updates and change reservations. But such programs fall short of what is available in Japan.
Chris McGinnis, editor of Expedia Travel Trendwatch, says that may not matter.
“It sounds very cool," he said of ANA’s system, “but the reality is that only a very small percentage of airline passengers would ever really use their phones for this type of transaction — maybe those stuck in a tunnel in New York City, trying to make a reservation on a back-up flight. But with the proliferation of Internet access nearly everywhere, it’s much easier to get online."
Henry Harteveldt, principal analyst for airline/travel industry research at Forrester Research, said advanced cell phone programs will have to pass muster with the Transportation Security Administration before they can take off in the U.S. And U.S. consumers will have to embrace mobile devices more fully.
“In Japan, 96 percent of business travelers have a mobile phone, versus 81 percent in the U.S.," Harteveldt said. “Fifty-seven percent of Japanese business travelers access the Internet from their mobile devices, versus 36 percent of U.S. online business travelers. Plus, the mobile devices being developed in the Japanese market are designed to support greater data functionality versus what we’re seeing here in the U.S."
Harteveldt thinks some American carriers could offer mobile check in by sometime next year, but “full flight booking may take more time. Airlines have to be careful," he said. “The technology may allow people to do a lot more, but we have to have both the comfort and confidence to use the technology — including the devices — first."