Air travel IT and communications specialist SITA remains bullish on the promise of NFC chips in air travel. And with 1 million NFC-enabled Android devices shipping per week, the promise of NFC is most certainly very bright.
What's lacking is the infrastructure, and industry-wide vendor support of the technology.
In order for adoption to match the hype, users have to be able to actually use their NFC-enabled devices to complete transactions. So, with cities like Singapore nearly at widespread adoption as far as payments, what will mainstream NFC adoption mean for areas beyond payments, such as an integrated, more seamless air travel experience?
SITA poses this question in their latest whitepaper, "Can mobile wallets give NFC a kick-start?"
The core concept here being that any traction seen for mobile wallets, such as Google Wallet, will speed adoption of NFC as consumers get used to paying virtually for goods and services.
Tnooz has written extensively about NFC in payments (here regarding the iPhone 5, here with a guest viewpoint also by SITA, and here regarding industry size as NFC converges).
Beyond payments, adoption of NFC has many implications for travel, especially in relation to airport traffic flows and efficiency. The current system involves a hybrid of 2D scannable codes on boarding passes and smartphones.
This system can be fraught, as some travelers are reluctant to use smartphone boarding passes due to the perceived problems: difficulty to scan on reflective screens, the necessity to keep the phone on and displaying the pass while waiting to board, the need to use an app or find a barcode buried in email...all of these things combine to make a slow shift technologically from paper to digital boarding procedures.
NFC, with its quick swipe potential to speed boarding and require no intervention on the part of the traveler, could be truly transformational within the airport experience.
But, SITA asks, is NFC the answer?
On the face of it the issues associated with mobile Bar Code Boarding Passes should open the door for NFC to be adopted for air travel, but that is starting to look less clear cut.
In the wider world NFC has been hampered by a lack of capable mobile phones, disagreement over standards by entrenched stakeholders, and an unclear value proposition for retailers due to the high cost of point-of-sale (POS) equipment.
Airlines are understandably hesitant to invest in a new technology that is still far from mass adoption and carries the risk of being overtaken by the rapid pace of consumer innovation. Results from the latest SITA/AirlineBusiness Airline IT Trends Survey indicate that the majority of airlines are taking a wait-and-see approach to using NFC technology for the next generation of passenger processing.
Some observers believe air transport industry adoption of NFC will depend on how well the technology is embraced by consumers for mobile payments in general and in particular, how the battle over mobile wallets plays out.
Travelers would simply be able to swipe their phones throughout an NFC-optimized airport experience, not just for payments, but also to be identified at security checkpoints via their boarding passes and at the gate when boarding.
Other areas in air travel that would be positively impacted by NFC would be purchasing items on the plane - a quick flash off a phone would allow for quicker processing of any food or premium beverages, and a faster service time for customers. Some airlines, such as Virgin America, already allow ordering from seatbacks, so perhaps the cost of implementing this NFC technology will continue to be a barrier for adoption.
SITA also sees other areas of impact for NFC:
Linking boarding passes and payment mechanisms within the same mobile wallet, provides multiple advantages for airlines and airports.
The boarding pass identifies the passenger and authorizes them to move through the transport system, while providing travel providers with the opportunity to use the simple and convenient multi-currency payments capabilities of mobile wallets to tempt passenger with personalized offers at each step of the journey.
Duty free purchases are an obvious example as both boarding card and payment are required to complete the transaction
at the airport. But last minute seat upgrades or pre-ordering onboard ser vices, such as meals or Wi-Fi, could also benefit the passenger and boost the top line of airlines.
Store the frequent flyer membership in the mobile wallet as well and the opportunity to offer special incentives tied to loyalty schemes becomes a real possibility.
Nonetheless, if the technology doesn't catch up - ie. if vendors continue to balk and the cost of implementing NFC capabilities in a widespread enough way that makes the technology actually feasible - there will be no NFC revolution whatsoever.
There has to be a complete ecosystem for NFC to truly take off, an ecosystem that allows a traveler's phone to be a central piece of their experience. And merely by eliminating the clutter of a wallet, mobile wallets have already gained traction.
Imagining a world where any purchase, transaction or identification situation is only a swipe of the phone away is indeed intoxicating - there's just a ways to go before a true revolution occurs throughout the global travel industry.
SITA's report can be accessed here.
NB: Gate image courtesy Shutterstock.