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Secure Element Issue Weighs on Airline Industry Evaluation of NFC

Mar 8 2013

The International Air Transport Association, which represents 240 airlines worldwide, plans to finish its evaluation of NFC technology this year and could propose standards to its members in October, the group has told NFC Times.

The association, known as IATA, set up a task force under its Fast Travel initiative and has been evaluating NFC technology as a way to flow passengers more quickly through airports.

It is looking at six major uses for NFC–to enable passengers to tap NFC mobile devices at check-in kiosks, boarding gates and security checkpoints; to identify them to drop off bags and enter lounges; and to allow them to make payments for services, such as onboard meals and ground transportation.

IATA is working with both mobile operator trade group the GSMA–with which it co-authored a white paper in 2011 setting out the six major use cases for NFC; and with the NFC Forum standards and trade group–with which it signed a collaboration agreement in 2012. 

“They (IATA and airline representative) just like the speed and ease of NFC, and the potential to cross sell services, pay onboard, get people into the lounges,” Debbie Arnold, director of the NFC Forum, told NFC Times, who said the forum has met at least five times with IATA since last May and plans to host IATA representatives in two weeks at its general meeting in Seoul, South Korea. 

Secure Element Needed?
But among the issues IATA would have to decide on if it adopts NFC is how to implement NFC services at airports and whether to store the boarding passes, frequent flyer account information or other passenger ID “tokens” on SIM cards or other secure elements in NFC phones. 

GSMA is pushing the SIM-based approach, and GSMA member France Telecom-Orange confirmed it plans to launch an NFC trial this fall with Air France of SIM-based boarding passes at the regional Toulouse-Blagnac Airport.

The trial could set a precedent–not only for what is believed to be the first true mobile boarding pass using standard NFC technology, but also that it will put the boarding pass onto SIM cards issued by Orange.

A SIM-based NFC boarding service launched last fall in Japan by operator KDDI and Japan Airlines is believed to use frequent flyer numbers. Japanese airlines have enabled check-in and boarding for years with proprietary FeliCa-based wallet phones. And other airlines have tested contactless stickers, storing frequent flyer numbers, for boarding or related services.

Large Geneva-based airline industry IT and communications services provider SITA, a proponent of NFC technology as a way to eventually replace what it considers cumbersome 2-D bar codes, is working on the Air France NFC pilot and other trials for airlines.

The trials will use SIM cards, which Renaud Irminger, director of the SITA lab and strong advocate of SIM-based NFC, sees as a way to enable passengers to quickly tap to transmit their boarding passes or ID to readers in airports.

“In our industry, we need tap and go; it has to be fast,” Irminger told NFC Times, while demonstrating SIM-based boarding passes at a mock boarding gate set up last week at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, an event organized by the GSMA. “We cannot do tap and confirm or tap and enter. We need tap and fly.”

Putting the application on the SIM card or other secure element in the phone means airlines could use card emulation, which is the only one of NFC’s three communication modes that allows the phone to be turned off or out of a charge and still transmit the boarding pass to gate readers, said Irminger, who demonstrated that option at the mock boarding gate. 

“Today, the only way to do tap and go like you have seen in GSMA–to read an element in the phone without the phone owner having to launch an application or acknowledge a data transfer is in card-emulation mode, and today, the only standard widely deployed for card emulation is based on a secure element in the SIM card,” Irminger said, agreeing that the boarding token also could be stored on an embedded chip or other secure element in the phone. 

“(But) mobile phone operators are releasing (some) NFC phones that only support card-emulation mode connecting to the SIM card,” he said, adding that in addition to the faster access, SIM-based boarding passes could offer much more security than bar-code boarding passes, where needed.

UPDATE: Standard NFC SIMs support a single-wire protocol connection to the NFC chip, which would be needed for the reader to access the boarding pass on the SIM chip. Other secure elements, such as embedded chips, would also have to support this SWP connection in order to be accessible when there is no power to the phone, an expert told NFC Times. END UPDATE.

With NFC’s other modes, tag reading and peer-to-peer, the phone would have to be powered up, and in some cases, users would have to open an application.

But as with payment applications, putting airline applications onto SIM cards requires the airlines to make agreements with mobile operators and could create other problems with fragmentation. Some airline customers might be subscribers of telcos that do not yet support NFC on their SIMs.

“What needs to be secure and what doesn’t need to be secure?” asked the NFC Forum’s Arnold. “Today, your boarding pass can be a bar code, and that’s not secure. Where do you need that, a SIM-based solution only? Where do we really need the secure element involved? What we want to do is (enable) services.”

When asked about potential problems with fragmentation, Arnold did not want to be drawn into a debate over the pros and cons of SIM-based NFC, but it is clear the NFC Forum is not pushing the SIM-based approach to IATA.

“That’s not our problem; it depends on how fragmentation affects the industry,” she said. “That’s something the airline industry has to sort out.”

Withholding Judgment
IATA, at least publicly, is withholding judgment on whether it needs card-emulation mode or to use secure elements to store NFC applications, despite co-authoring the SIM-centric white paper with the GSMA in 2011.

“The objective of IATA for this year on NFC is to identify all possible solutions to implement NFC, including SIM-based or phone based solutions,” a spokeswoman told NFC Times in a statement. “Should the business case (for NFC) be sound, IATA will also identify needs for industry standards around the technology, like how and where should be stored the token, for example.”

She said IATA is aiming to complete the evaluation in time to propose any required standards at IATA’s big passenger services conference in October, where airline members discuss and agree to standards and procedures for passenger and baggage handling, reservations and other services, sometimes meeting with their counterparts in the U.S.-based Airlines for America trade group.

Regardless of the secure element issue, NFC could solve a problem many in the airline industry have found with bar codes, which require passengers to position them correctly, whether on paper or on their phones, to be scanned in a timely manner. And if they haven’t downloaded the bar codes to their phones before leaving home, passengers could incur roaming charges in airports.

But any rollout of NFC could require expensive infrastructure by airlines, and IATA has said it first has to validate the business case for the technology.

If it decides to adopt NFC, passengers likely could be begin tapping to check in, access lounges and pass through boarding gates as early as next year.

 

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