Wow, What a Smart Card!

The new computerized Amex cards contain information about the cardholder embedded in the chip.

For years, technology pundits have made the same joke about smart cards that economists have been making about Brazil for decades. They are the future... and always will be. Well, for smart cards at least, the future finally seems to have arrived. Banks, credit-card companies, airlines, and hotels have unleashed a wave of smart-card experiments.

Last fall, in partnership with Continental Airlines and Hilton Hotels, American Express announced that several thousand customers would receive Amex cards with an embedded computer chip. The chip stores information about the cardholder: airplane-seating and hotel-room preferences, frequent-travel numbers. The card is designed to solve some basic travel nightmares. For example, Continental passengers with an electronic ticket can bypass check-in lines by inserting their smart card into an electronic kiosk. The kiosk reads the card and allows the traveler to select a seat assignment, change a flight, upgrade to first class, check bags, or get a boarding pass.

Hilton offers similar options. Guests at eight participating hotels - in cities including Seattle, Houston, Chicago, and Philadelphia - can review, add to, or change reservation information, obtain their own room key, or check themselves out.

The smart card "gives business travelers the three things they crave most: the ability to save time, the ability to update their travel-profile information, and the convenience of having everything in one card," says Jud Linville, an American Express senior vice president.

For more information on smart-card pilot programs, visit the Smart Card Forum (www.smartcrd.com).

Gina Imperato gimperato@fastcompany.com

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