Coming this May, Disney in a partnership with ARINC and Baggage Airline Guest Services Inc. will take the "hold" out of hold baggage and put a zip in the trip to the airport for guests at its Walt Disney World Resort.
As part of the company's Magical Express service, participating visitors won't see their checked baggage from the time they leave their home airport for domestic flights until they arrive in the hotel room, providing they fly on American, Continental, Delta, Song, United or Ted. Even more magical, the service will let them check themselves and their luggage for the same airlines at the hotel at the end of their stay. The service, which also includes a bus trip to and from the airport, will be free for at least the first year.
Aside from the convenience factor, experts say efforts promoting remote check-in are helping accelerate the drudgery of getting from the curb to the gate. John Dungan, senior director-transportation solutions for ARINC, says by giving passengers the option of checking in their luggage up to 12 hr. in advance of flights, programs like Magical Express are helping save money and speeding up airport throughput. "If those bags are coming in a steady stream," he says, "it's a whole lot more efficient." For airlines and the Transportation Security Administration, he says that means less staffing to support peak loads. For airports it means there is less need to build more check-in space.
The Disney effort is one of several check-in initiatives that service providers globally are embarking upon in the name of quickness and convenience. ARINC's counterpart, SITA, has teamed with Siemens Corp. to add efficiency to the check-in process using an accoutrement very often seen attached to the ear of most business travelers, the mobile phone. Klaus Heeder, director-business support solutions, says the companies in December launched a pilot project called SITA Mobile Check-in at Sao Paulo Airport in conjunction with TAM Brazilian Airlines. He says about 500 mobile phone users are testing the system at the moment.
To use SMCI, a traveler must have a mobile phone with service on a digital network that supports data. After registering at the airline-provided Internet site and supplying information on the type of phone and the service provider, users receives a text message that includes a link they click to download a Java applet containing the SMCI software package.
Regarding user friendliness, Heeder says SMCI is easier to use and more intuitive than competing short-message-service-based mobile phone check-in services. When running, the password-protected application lists all flights available for check-in, including those of other airlines. After selecting flights, the passenger is instructed where at the airport to pick up boarding passes and drop bags. In addition, the phone shows the seating arrangement, allowing seat selection by scrolling up or down on the phone's screen. "Four clicks and you're checked in," he says.
Once at the airport, the phone displays a 2D barcode that the passenger swipes across a SITA-provided reader to print boarding passes. Heeder says the company has several barcode readers in test at Sao Paolo. Ideally, the mobile phone itself would serve as the boarding pass complete with barcode, though he says security officials at most airports are not yet prepared to move from away from paper boarding passes.
Benefits for passengers are not so much in saving time as in creating efficiency. "If you look at total time to get to the gate, it's not really shorter," says Heeder. "But because you can check in before arriving, the time at the front of the airport comes down to getting the boarding pass, which takes about five seconds." There is an implicit plus for airports as well, he adds-passengers will have more nonqueuing time, meaning more time to spend in shops, restaurants and bars generating revenue for the airport. He says several US airlines are evaluating SMCI.
As for SMS-based systems, Singapore Airlines last summer introduced mobile phone check-in using the text-messaging SMS cellphone feature. As with the SITA system, SIA's customers must sign up for the service at the airline's Internet site. Mobile phones then can be used to check in remotely. Once at the airport, passengers pick up their boarding passes and drop off hold baggage at a dedicated counter apart from the regular check-in areas.
Qantas also introduced SMS-based cellphone check-in last July. With its system, registered passengers check in up to 6 hr. in advance by sending a text message over the phone. The airline sends a return message with a "virtual boarding pass" that includes a barcode and flight and seating information and that serves as a boarding pass. Bags are dropped off at a dedicated SMS check-in counter.
With ARINC's hotel-based remote check-in, passengers obtain boarding passes from kiosks that are connected to an ARINC server over the Internet. The server then communicates directly with the airline over the Internet. At Disney, where the ARINC/BAGS system has been in place for 18 months at the Rosen Centre Hotel on a pay-per-use basis ($10 to get a boarding pass and have checked bags taken to the airport from the hotel), ARINC supplies the workstations and printers as part of its portable iMUSE Express system while BAGS takes the luggage to and from the airport and handles the interface with airlines and the TSA with respect to bag screening.
iMUSE Express, which also is available for off-airport check-in at places such as the Las Vegas Convention Center, allows agents to check in passengers and print boarding passes and luggage tags in any location with an Internet connection. Dungan says the part about "Internet connection" was the linchpin that made the Disney system viable: "The challenge with remote check-in at hotels was how to make it affordable." At airports, each airline must have a dedicated phone line at the gate to process passenger and bag check-in. Having a dedicated line connecting each hotel to each airline would have been cost-prohibitive, he says, but most hotels now have broadband connectivity.
Dungan says ARINC is "kicking around" other ideas for speeding up curb-to-gate transit as well. One hot idea at the moment is to assign appointment times at check-in for when to show up at the security line, similar to what is done at major amusement parks.
While he says it is too soon to provide a quantitative measure of how much here-and-now efforts like Magical Express will aid in the airport congestion problem, it is not too soon to see the effect on travelers: "People are amazed something like this exists."