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The Midland Bank Plc’s travel doyen Thomas Cook has joined forces with SmartCard International Inc, New York, to produce prototypes of an ingenious smart card designed for international business travellers. Tipped to become the ultimate – and indispensable travel accessory, the card is an electronic substitute for travellers cheques, expense accounts, travel itineraries and guide books, and crucially, given the multi-leg nature of business travel, combines a 20-character keyboard with a two line display facility for off-line transactions. Essentially, the credit-card-sized Ulticard contains 64Kb of EEPROM memory, which can be uploaded and downloaded with different kinds of travel data. Along with company and individual constants – anything ranging from airlines customarily patronised by the company to a request for vegetarian meals in non-smoking seats – a mass of information relevant to the card-holder’s itinerary including time zones, exchange rates, visa regulations, airport, hotel and Thomas Cook office locations, can be loaded into the card before departure day. A card-holder’s company can also agree an expenses credit limit, or pay for a specific credit balance to be implanted within the card’s expenses category. Once abroad, the card-holder can use the credit facility – via a Thomas Cook outlet or airports office – to buy local currency, and can enter expenses into the card through the keyboard. At the end of a trip, the card holder simply returns the card to Thomas Cook, where the data accrued during the trip can be downloaded, via a read-write terminal, plugged into the back of a personal computer. If necessary, itinerary changes can be made in the middle of a trip, by authorising a Thomas Cook agent to key in new flight and destination details – a process which draws in the additional travel information automatically. Thomas Cook plans to run one year Ulticard trials using its own staff as guinea pigs, to determine which of the features are of real benefit: plans for the future include adding a magnetic stripe to the back of the card to provide automatic teller machine-linked cash dispensing facilities. The Ulticard technology is to used in the US by Visa for its Supersmart card, by university students for registration and campus-based purchases, and by insurance agents for the instant display of dividend and premium values.

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