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Mobile phones to save airlines, by exposing passengers

How much privacy would you give up for cheaper flights?

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Airline travel is set to get even more unpleasant, as hapless airline passengers face being hounded through airports by online advertisers as well as security, customs and perfume touting duty free sales staff.

The airline industry could save $600m a year by tracking passengers through airports and punting ads to their mobiles, along with their tickets and boarding passes, according to a report from airline industry tech supplier SITA.

The prediction comes in a report from SITA, distributed at its Air Transport IT Summit in Brussels last. It gains a little credibility by including research from Cambridge University, though SITA are the one's who would like to provide the technology.

The tracking idea could be done in conjunction with the network operators, in much the same way commercial tracking happens now. At present customers receive an SMS asking them if they're OK with the idea, and if they don’t say no then the third party (in this case the airport) gains access to instant information about the location of the phone, and hence that of the user. That generally gives rough information, though the density of cells within an airport should give locations within a hundred meters or so.

If working with the operators is too much effort, or more accuracy is desired, then airlines could use the technique Path Technologies is already deploying in shopping centres - airports being a cross between a shopping centre and an open prison these days anyway. Path Technologies track handsets, not their owners, but a link could be established during the check-in procedure.

Knowing where all the passengers are could save valuable time chasing them down when they should be boarding. Your correspondent's boss at Swiss Telecom had a policy of never going to the gate until his name had been called twice; the stares of the other passengers on boarding are cause to give up a lot of privacy.

Checking in could also be delegated to the mobile phone, in much the same way that many airlines operate online check-in. Using a phone would also allow an electronic boarding pass to be issued direct to the phone. This is already happening in Japan using FeliCa handsets and could be an application for NFC, though a lower-tech solution could just display a bar-code on an existing handset (as offered by Mobiqa).

But SITA reckons mobile phones won't just cut costs and reduce paper work, they could also increase revenue. In a trial punters hanging around Manchester Airport spent 45 per cent more if money-off vouchers were sent to their mobiles. Combined with the tracking technology the opportunities are endless.

Of course, SITA is hardly an uninterested party in this, investing more than $100m during 2008 into finding new reasons for the air industry to spend more money on technology. ®

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