Move over QR codes; NFC will support more seamless boarding

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“Turn the phone over, please. OK, hold it steady. It’s not scanning, can you turn up the screen brightness? There’s a notification in the way. I’m going to need you to go get a paper boarding pass, sir.” I bet I’m not the only airline passenger who has had this exchange either at a security checkpoint or at the boarding gate since the inception of the mobile boarding pass.

The mobile boarding pass is nothing new. I have been using them since I had a flip phone and flew Northwest Airlines between Detroit and New York. They are marketed to passengers as a thing of convenience – the airline’s mobile app automagically creates a QR code-based boarding pass after check-in, and all you have to do is quickly scan it without breaking stride as you step onto the aircraft. That’s not really how it plays out in reality.

Thankfully, the world is slowly shying away from QR codes and on to more advanced methods of mobile payment, most recently spurred by Apple finally hopping on the NFC bandwagon with Apple Pay. While the iPhone and Apple Watch are NFC-enabled, Apple has not yet opened up API access to the hardware, but that day is coming.

Before NFC really takes hold, airlines and passengers must get through the first few waves of “smartwatches”. Unfortunately, at least for now, smartwatches just seem like an even more inconvenient way to use a QR-based boarding pass. While airlines are tripping over themselves to announce smartwatch apps (easyJet among them), few have actually announced boarding pass capability to go along with them, for what is now a fairly cumbersome process. Over at AnrdoidCentral.com, editor-in-chief Phil Nickinson experienced what it’s like to actually use a smartwatch boarding pass, and it was anything but a step into the future.

Once NFC becomes the norm, I am excited to see its impact on the airline passenger experience (#PaxEx). With a tap of my phone, smartwatch, NFC-enabled loyalty card, or whatever an airline decides to implement, I can simply tap my way into getting things done quickly. Imagine walking into an airline lounge with a quick tap on a reader, followed by another quick tap to have the bartender prepare your preferred drink. No more pulling out your phone, opening an app, prompting it to display the QR code, and fumbling around to get it to scan.

Thankfully, some firms in the industry have been smart enough to see this change coming. For instance, various producers of gate scanners have been quietly including NFC compatibility on top of traditional barcode scanners for quite some time. JetBlue Airways recently began accepting NFC payments via Apple Pay on board aircraft, and Panasonic Avionics’s latest seat-back monitor includes an NFC reader for both card-based and mobile payments.

The transition to NFC from QR codes will take some time, but the payoff will be sweet. The next time you are boarding a flight, pay close attention to the time it takes someone to scan a mobile boarding pass versus a piece of paper. If the mobile solution is slower than old-fashioned paper – and I guarantee it will be – it’s time for a change.

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