Japan Airlines says: “QuiC!”

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Boarding a plane at Japan Airlines has become super efficient on those routes that compete with the Bullet Train (the Japanese Shinkansen high speed train). Hideyuki Isomura, Manager, Strategy and Planning, Passenger Systems, Japan Airlines, explains that it is “QuiC” technology that enables domestic air travel to stack up alongside its ground-based sibling and NFC technology will assist increasing numbers of domestic passengers to take off

Natural disaster may have temporarily coloured our impression of Japan but our prevailing and enduring association with that country is super efficiency, high technology and dogged achievement. The Bullet Train has been synonymous with Japan’s high tech lifestyle. The first line, the Tōkaidō Shinkansen, was opened in 1964 and the network has since expanded to link most major cities on the islands of Honshu and Kyushu with running speeds of up to 300km/h (186mph).

What has become obvious to a whole generation of travellers living in and visiting Japan is that a ride on the Bullet Train is more like a flight but without the hassle of visiting airports, checking in and security bottle necks. Fares are similar to airfares but departure and arrival have the distinct advantage of being located in city centres.

The very success of the Bullet Train has been a challenge to Japan Airlines’ domestic route strategy – but Hideyuki points out that challenge can be – and indeed has been – met. Of course it has taken more than competitive behaviour to salvage the domestic route network: Japan Airlines has studied its competitor, watched Japanese traveller behaviour and embraced technology in order to take on its rival.

But taking on its rival has also been achieved within the context of meeting the airline’s punctuality imperatives. Japan Airlines was voted the world’s most punctual airline in 2010 and the year prior to this, although Hideyuki concedes that the Bullet Train is even more punctual. That is not surprising, he says, as the Bullet Train never waits for passengers, has no security checks and no air traffic controllers to delay proceedings.

Hideyuki points out that competing with the train and retaining high punctuality credentials boil down to boarding and disembarkation times. It has to be hassle-free because “we have no time to spare,” he says. After all, most Japan Airlines’ domestic passengers turn up at Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka Airports 20-30 minutes prior to departure and Japan Airlines has to be super efficient.

Since 2005, Japan Airlines has accommodated this high level of efficiency through a direct boarding style called “QuiC”. It also allows for fare adjustment and self-baggage check.

The system relies on four types of boarding “token”. The first is a 2D barcode printed on paper; the second is a 2D barcode on a mobile device; the third is on an IC card; and finally there is an option to have the boarding token delivered via an IC chip in a Japanese mobile phone (with Japan Airlines’ applications downloaded from its site).

All this means there is no need for web check-in. The technology is very much “touch and go” with baggage drop 20 minutes prior to departure, security check 15 minutes prior to departure and a final “touch and go” at the boarding gate 10 minutes before takeoff. Passengers have become accustomed to running.

Not only has the appropriate equipment and readers been installed in order to achieve these results but a review of processes has also been undertaken. This has resulted in what Hideyuki calls “ideal process flow” and a strict cabin baggage policy.

Going forward, Hideyuki says that the much discussed NFC technology is the future for check-in and boarding. NFC – or Near Field Communication – is a subset of RFID technology. It enables devices to communicate over a short distance through radio waves. Increasingly, NFC is being used in transportation systems to allow access through barriers at embarkation and disembarkation points.

Hideyuki explains that NFC is the new interface that accommodates both Sony Felica and Philips MIFARE contactless IC smart card technologies. Felica is used largely throughout the Japanese, Chinese and Singaporean markets, and MIFARE is prevalent in the rest of the world. We have seen –through pilot check-in and boarding projects conducted by Amadeus and ARINC – that NFC devices can operate like a contactless card (even when switched off) making them compatible with the huge installed infrastructure of MIFARE and Felica systems. These proven systems, with millions of cards in the market already, deliver to the aviation market a solid foundation for the introduction of NFC enabled devices – by which we mean largely smart phones.

Also important to Japan Airlines is automated fare adjustment through the use of smart technologies. “An IC card works not only for boarding but also for e-money and can be used to pay for an upgrade or purchases,” says Hideyuki. He adds that this facility also allows the airline to compete on price with the Bullet Train by offering cash back on discounted fares. Of course self-baggage tag for domestic routes is imperative to the airline.

The vision at Japan Airlines is super efficient direct boarding to an industrial standard which is why work in this area is being undertaken with IATA. There is also a need for flexibility to be built into the system so that passenger demand for change can be accommodated through technology and not limited by modern concepts.

Of course our immediate thoughts are with Japan’s population who have suffered immense grief as a consequence of the earthquake and tsunami. At the recent Amadeus showcase, Hideyuki reported that all Japanese Airlines’ staff and passengers are safe. In fact one PRM passenger was carried by a member of the airline’s staff to safety and our thoughts remain with those who were not in such safe hands.