NetMotion's Mobility Takes Flight at Baggage Claim

By Ed Sutherland

April 27, 2005

It used to take luggage a while to arrive, but now your suitcase is in the hands of a persistent Wi-Fi connection.

Following images late last year of airline travelers angry over baggage-handling snafus, Continental Airlines is trying something different. According to Seattle, WA-based NetMotion Wireless, the airline is using Wi-Fi to streamline the baggage claim process.

Continental is providing baggage handlers with mobile PDAs powered by NetMotion's Mobility XE, a software platform enabling workers to stay connected to critical applications.

"We have a smoother baggage-handling process with NetMotion Mobility XE," said Doug Stewart, Continental Airlines Technology Program Manager. The airline's baggage-tracking process "improved dramatically," according to Stewart, following Continental's purchase of 1,000 licenses for Mobility XE in Dec. 2004.

Mobility XE "makes our critical applications perform reliably over wireless networks and provides the wireless security we need to satisfy Homeland Security requirements," according to Stewart.

Access to Airline Apps

The Mobility XE software, available to Continental's baggage-handling personnel on ruggedized Windows CE-based Itronix handhelds, allows airline workers to access applications unavailable to those moving through numerous Wi-Fi subnets, says Aaron Burnett, NetMotion's vice president of marketing.

"They use these devices to access key airline data and track baggage, ensuring that passengers' bags are routed correctly and arrive promptly at the baggage claim areas," according to a statement.

Although Continental already had a WLAN infrastructure and its own program for tracking baggage, the in-house tracking software had a problem with staff who frequently moved from area to area in the airport and on the tarmac losing contact with critical applications.

After nearly two years attempting to solve the puzzle on its own, Continental Airlines called in NetMotion, which was already accomplishing the same task of keeping mobile users connected to applications in the healthcare and public safety areas.

"Network connectivity challenges in airport environments proved to be a hurdle," according to NetMotion. "Airline personnel had to re-authenticate and restart critical applications several times each shift," a process taking up to six minutes each time, according to a statement.

As a result of the regular cycle of workers moving around the airport, wireless connections being lost, needing to re-authenticate and then restart applications, Continental "had baggage handlers standing around," says Burnett. "Now baggage handlers are able to roam seamlessly between access points and subnets," according to NetMotion.

Mobility XE also puts to work the 1,000 handheld devices first purchased by Continental, but collecting dust on shelves due to the earlier wireless connectivity trouble.

Persistence Pays Off

Persistence, the ability for wireless users to stay connected to wired applications, was a requirement so serious that Continental demanded it be addressed, says Burnett. Mobility XE's application persistence is seven days by default, according to Burnett.

Mobility XE acts as a 'window' between wireless devices and a wired application. As the go-between, the Mobility software sits on a dedicated server, transmitting data. Instead of a wireless user who moves out of range being disconnected from a baggage-tracking application, Mobility XE keeps the user logged into the application while the worker regains his Wi-Fi connection. Burnett explains that Mobility XE employs a virtual IP address to keep wireless clients logged into specific applications. No matter if the user went home or across the Atlantic, the application will still be available—only the wireless transmission of data is suspended, according to Burnett.

Also of value to the Houston-based airline with 41,000 employees is Mobility XE's easy-to-learn 128-bit encrypted VPN. The VPN "was so transparent and easy to use that no employee training was required to implement it," said NetMotion.

Monsters Don't Exist

While airlines are seeing "a pretty dramatic increase in productivity," the companies need to be reassured "they haven't loosed a monster," says Burnett. One way to reassure the airlines is by providing "much greater certainty" that Wi-Fi will be secure and will provide value. After nearly six months of testing Mobility XE in baggage tracking, Continental has gained enough confidence in Wi-Fi that it is expanding the software's reach into the airline's maintenance operations.

How can Wi-Fi help an airline's maintenance operations? Techs need access to manuals and logs, and they often find themselves in remote locations. "They are constantly climbing in and out of fuselages," says Burnett. NetMotion foresees announcing similar agreements with other airlines, according to Burnett.

In December 2004, Continental began offering free Wi-Fi access in its Presidents Club lounges at 29 airports, becoming the first airline to do so. Last year, the FCC ruled airlines—not airports—have "exclusive jurisdiction" over unlicensed wireless operations. Airports such as Boston's Logan International and Denver International Airport argued they should manage wireless networks being offered to the public and to airlines. Airports also wanted to charge airlines for using the wireless networks for such applications as baggage handling.

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