Prepare to say goodbye to paper boarding passes, EIA tells passengers

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Prepare to say goodbye to paper boarding passes, EIA tells passengers

Ed Sims holds a rectangular piece of paper up above his head and waves it in front of a business crowd at Rogers Place Monday afternoon.

"You might want to treasure that, because that's going to become a museum item very, very shortly," the executive vice president of WestJet's commercial services said into a microphone.

Sims was on a panel discussing the advantages of an enhanced digital strategy at the Edmonton International Airport.

Going paperless is a part of the plan.

"It never did make sense in the booking process to give somebody a piece that they replaced with another piece of paper that was ripped in half and you carried half a piece of paper on board an aircraft," he said.

WestJet aims to transition to a completely paperless, fully automated operation as soon as possible, he said.

Sims joined EIA president and CEO Tom Ruth, executive director of Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (AMII) Cameron Schuler and Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson. 

Ruth said they're working on a series of enhanced services, like self-serve baggage drops.

"You can come in and drop your bag and you don't need to go behind the counter. You can drop your bag and then you can go onto your flight."

Ruth also said the airport is using existing technology, such as apps and alerts, to get information about flight delays and lineups at security to passengers in real time.

For the mayor, it was an opportunity to tout the city's potential as a trailblazer for artificial intelligence research.

"It is a really exciting time to think of how all of the assets in Edmonton are starting to come together," Iveson said.

The city is urging AMII to move downtown, Iveson said, describing the University of Alberta institute as a critical piece of an innovation corridor running from the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology down to the U of A.

Sims said WestJet is considering working with experts in artificial intelligence from the university and commercial vendors to deliver the changes within months.

The company also plans to create "pop-up lounges" with intelligent, virtual hosts in place of staff.

He said the company has agreed to develop a digital strategy prototype in Edmonton first, before moving on to other airports.

Sims, who is from New Zealand, said paper boarding passes will be gone in less than five years, but said it's difficult to pin down a more precise time because of the culture of "caution and circumspection" among Canadian travellers.

"Ninety per cent of Australasians check in and board using their mobile phone. In Canada, that's still around the 45 to 50 per cent mark," he said. "We need to close that gap." 

The Edmonton airport is one of four airports in Canada with the technology to allow passengers to get through customs without having to fill out a paper customs card.

Edmonton passengers can use an app from the Canada Border Services Agency to scan their personal information on a primary inspection kiosk (PIK). The kiosks have been in use at EIA for about a month.

Sims and Ruth said passengers can expect to see the digital revolution at the airport within the next year.