[Dave Birch] Isn’t it boring when people tell you that payments work fine and that it’s pointless for us technology persons to waste time on mobile payments? Things just don’t work fine at all. We’ve only taken baby steps towards the mobile future.

For example. I checked in for my last United flight using the app on my smartphone. Cool. It worked quite well once I’d found the confirmation code (or whatever they call it) in an old e-mail from our travel agent. The mobile check-in gives you a QR code that you can use to check in at the airport. But the machines at the United counters at JFK don’t read these codes, so you have to type in your confirmation again at the counter. Then the machine asks you if you want to check a bag. I did, and the machine then wanted $25 (*). You would think that, this being nearly 2014, and since the machine and my app both know which booking this is and since they are both connected via the interweb tubes, that my app would then pop up and ask me to confirm the $25 charge and then charge it against a card on file or take it from the company account that was used to book the ticket or whatever. But no. So I had to get out my wallet and swipe a card. Swipe! Not even chip and PIN! I could, of course, have used anyone’s card since there is no CVM at all, PIN or otherwise.

On the plane, the United purser announced the meal service. You have to pay for the meals in economy class so I just got a snack box. Anyway, admirably, they won’t take cash and you have to use a card. But my card was in my wallet, which was in my laptop back, which was in the overhead bin. Total hassle. Once again, I note that you can use anyone’s card since there is, again, no CVM.

Apparently, using anyone’s card must have been happening a lot on British Airways, because if you use your card in-flight on BA, even if it’s a BA Amex chip and PIN card and you have status on BA and you must have had a boarding card to be in the seat in the first place, they swipe the card rather than do a chip transaction and they make you get your passport out and they record the details. When, on a recent BA flight, I asked why they had adopted such a time-consuming and irritating payment process, the flight attendant told me that they had very high card fraud on certain routes. In a spirit of international harmony I will not repeat the specific routes that she mentioned, and the geography is not relevant to my point here, but again I wonder why I can’t buy stuff in-flight using my BA app. My app could record the purchases in-flight and then charge against a card on file or an account when I get off the plane. How much fraud could there be? It’s my phone and my app (you have to enter a password to run the BA app) and they can see which seat I’m in. Maybe BA could try another kind of innovation, though, and follow the example of the Indian airline that sends people round to your house to collect the cash…

The airline is still happy since the cost of the cash collection service is actually lower than the average Merchant Discount Fee currently incurred by the airline for accepting card payments

[From The Less-Cash Society | Snarketing 2.0]

I don’t feel that I’m asking for the moon to ask for a little integration between Amex and an airline. Why can’t my Amex app grant my BA app permission to charge in certain circumstance? Why can’t my BA app link to the BA in-flight system? Why doesn’t my BA app have a prepaid account connected to it (hello Serve) for offline in-flight payments? Why can’t everyone play together nicely in the payments and travel world! I can assure you it’s not a new idea! There was a time when new technology brought Amex payments and an airline together…

In January 1970, American Express issued 250 000 mag-stripe cards to its Chicago-area customers and installed self-service ticketing kiosks at the American Airlines counter at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Cardholders could opt to get their tickets and boarding passes from the kiosk or from a human agent. They flocked to the kiosks. In fact, United Airlines customers walked to American Airlines—at the other end of the terminal a quarter mile away—to use the kiosks.

[From The Long Life and Imminent Death of the Mag-Stripe Card – IEEE Spectrum]

Wow. That was a couple of generations ago. As I said, we’re only just beginning. This was at the dawn of the magnetic stripe era and I hope for some similar innovation at the dawn of the mobile era. To me it seems a rather appealing vision to potter along to the airport with my phone and use it to check in, get on the plane and interact in-flight. Maybe contactless technology could help here.

The airline has 3 million EuroBonus members, and among these it issued the sticker to many of its most loyal frequent flyers, EuroBonus Gold members. It issued 20,000 stickers last fall in Sweden and another 35,000 in Denmark and Norway starting in March… A follow-up survey of these users by SAS found that 87% said they had applied the stickers to the back of their mobile phones, and 68% said they had used it at least six times since October.

[From Airline to Introduce NFC App Following Successful Sticker Launch | NFC Times – Near Field Communication and all contactless technology.]

Stickers are, as I may have mentioned, the future. But in another parallel universe, where NFC has a future, there are some people who are still working on that phone-based contactless future with gusto and developing scenarios where it might be a success.

A guide setting out the potential use cases for NFC in the air travel sector has been published by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and The NFC Forum.

[From IATA and NFC Forum publish NFC air travel reference guide • NFC World]

Could there be progress in this area? It’s difficult. We looked at this for a client a couple of years ago and found real barriers. For one thing, all of the “component experiences” in a journey belong to different people. The airline doesn’t control the immigration desk, the immigration desk doesn’t control the airport, the airport doesn’t control the handsets and so on. Yes, phones could work as tickets and boarding cards, although I have to note that this trivial and obvious use of NFC has already been patented by Apple, whose phones do not have NFC.

The USPTO has granted Apple a patent for a service that lets travellers use their mobile phone to both buy an airline ticket and pass more smoothly and speedily through an airport on their day of travel.

[From Apple awarded patent for mobile airline ticketing and travel service • NFC World]

Never mind, I expect they have some clever Bluetooth LE plus fingerprint alternative waiting in the wings. I see, by the way, that both Amex and United have been announced as partners for the Samsung Wallet. As the good people at Samsung have very kindly asked me to come along and give a talk at their forthcoming developer event for Europe, I shall pass on my suggestions (and any further that you send me) to the relevant people in person.

(*) I simply do not understand airline policy on this. United were charging people $25 to check a bag. As a consequence, people get on to the plane looking like models for Buckaroo. Naturally, this means that a) getting on the plane takes forever and b) there’s no room in the overhead lockers. As a consequence, the staff have to make people check their bags at the gate. But get this: if your bag is checked at the gate, it’s free. I took a laptop bag and checked my suitcase and paid the money. Next time, I’m taking two huge carry-ons and I’m going to call one of them a purse.

These are personal opinions and should not be misunderstood as representing the opinions of 
Consult Hyperion or any of its clients or suppliers


  1. These all seem like rich people’s problems. Rich people have money they can solve their own problems. Why don’t we talk more about financial services for the poor?

    [Dave Birch] I am poor. That’s why I was in economy on United and buying my own lunch.

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