Air Canada reps rove wirelessly

To put a human face on self-service check-in kiosks, roving Air Canada agents at Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson Airport are now using wireless, wearable computers to assist in “line busting” during peak travel periods.

To register passengers, Air Canada agents, equipped with an IBM handheld and a mobile boarding pass printer attached to their belts, simply swipe the passenger’s credit card to pull up the reservation. Alternatively, the agent can input the passenger name and flight number on the computer’s touch-screen pad. Once the record is displayed on the eight-inch device, the agent can check the passenger in and print a boarding pass, allowing the customer to proceed directly to the gate, said Marty Salfen, IBM Canada Ltd.’s Montreal-based managing director of Air Canada services.

Since IBM just ported the applications on Air Canada’s existing kiosk system directly to the handheld units, Salfen said the only technical issue was applying extra layers of security. The project developers were especially cognizant of this, he said, in light of the January audits that highlighted very serious security concerns with American Airlines’ wireless LAN systems at Denver International Airport and San Jose International Airport.

The existing self-service architecture consists of an IBM eServer pSeries, which acts as a gateway between the kiosk server and the IBM Transaction Process Facility application software that holds the reservation data. The kiosk system is powered by IBM MQSeries, IBM Kiosk Manager and IBM Consumer Device Services software. The mobile IBM kiosk operates on an 802.11b wireless network and includes several additional authentication layers and security enhancements on top of the standard wireless encryption protocol (WEP) security.

On the human engineering side, Salfen said both IBM and Air Canada were surprised to find that the mobile kiosks seem to act as a bridge to the regular self-service kiosks.

“A lot of people are just hesitant to use kiosks – they like to interface with a person. Once they realized that these agents were just using the same technology (as the kiosk) a lot of them said ‘Well, I’ll just go over there next time’ because they realized how quick and simple it was,” he said.

Salfen also said Air Canada and IBM are looking at several other prototypes and pilot projects that employ wireless solutions to help smooth the rougher edges out of air travel.

“Congestion at the airport is an issue, line mechanics having information is an issue and passenger re-booking is an issue, so you want to (identify) a business problem and have technology solve that. A lot of this is coming out of our dedicated research resources at Air Canada. We do that in very few instances and it gives us a chance to collaboratively sit down…and merge the business with the technology,” he said.