Are paper boarding passes a thing of the past?
The roll-out is made possible by a push by airlines worldwide to shift from boarding passes that store a passengers' information in a magnetic stripe, to a system that encrypts the travelers' name and flight itinerary in a two-dimensional square by the end of this year.
By eliminating expensive paper stock and readers required by the magnetic stripes, and allowing passengers to obtain boarding passes at home, or at kiosks in hotels, airports and parking garages, the industry hopes to save $1.5-billion a year.
Getting a pass on a smart phone is one option allowed by the new bar codes. But will the move toward paperless boarding introduce new security worries about fraudulent boarding passes?
It turns out that this concern delayed implementation of paperless boarding passes in the U.S. Travelers in Asia and several ports of call in Europe embraced the move several years ago, but the questions about security posed by the Transportation Security Administration slowed the systems' introduction here.
"They wanted to make sure there was a proper level of security," said Steve Lott, North American spokesman for the International Air Transport Assn., which represents the world's major airlines and devised the bar-code system.
"They took the global bar code and added an additional level of encryption and security."
The encrypted bar codes can only be read by TSA scanners at checkpoints, where passengers must present identification, along with their paperless boarding pass on their smart phone, to pass through security. A limited number of TSA scanners is currently restricting the number of airports that can offer the service in the U.S. officials said.
Passengers who check in for their flights on airline web sites can download their boarding pass onto their smart phone. The paperless boarding information will also be scanned at the gate before passengers board.
Continental, the first U.S. carrier to offer paperless boarding passes through a pilot with the TSA at Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport, offers the service at more than 50 airports, including hubs in New York and Cleveland, as well as at international facilities in Frankfurt and London, said Mary Clark, an airline spokeswoman.
American Airlines offers the service domestically at 27 airports, including Los Angeles International, Dallas-Fort Worth International and Chicago's O'Hare. United Airlines offers mobile boarding passes at a dozen U.S. airports and plans to roll the service out in 30 facilities by this summer.
Because the service just became widely available in the U.S., usage rates are tough to come by.
"While customer feedback has been very good, it's also difficult to measure usability in figures that are meaningful because the offering still has some limitations," said Stacey Frantz, a American Airlines' spokeswoman. "For example, a passenger may fly with a mobile boarding pass on a business trip from Austin to San Francisco, but then fly with paper boarding passes to Orlando when on vacation with the entire family because mobile boarding passes today are only offered with a single person" on the itinerary.
Mobile-phone check in only represented 1.8% of check-in transactions across six airports surveyed by SITA last fall. The survey also found that 80% of airlines worldwide are planning on offering the service by 2012.
And with the number of people who carry smart phones expected to soar in the next few years, it's a good bet that digging around for that paper boarding pass may soon become a thing of the past for many travelers.