Boarding pass in a cell phone

October 14, 2007|By Brad Hem | Brad Hem,Houston Chronicle

Cell phones and other mobile devices may become the new airline boarding passes.

A new bar code standard that will pave the way for using cell phones to check in and board flights was announced last week by the International Air Transport Association.

Carriers, including Southwest Airlines and Continental Airlines, say they're interested in making the switch, but first the federal agency charged with handling airport security needs to decide whether it can live without paper boarding passes.

Here's how cell phone check-in would work: Instead of a traveler or airline printing a paper boarding pass and then having the bar codes scanned at airport security and the gate, passengers would register their mobile numbers with the airline and get text messages with boarding pass bar codes. They could then simply hold the screen of their cell phones under the scanner, and off they'd go.

"You're eliminating the paper completely," said Steve Lott, a spokesman for IATA, the international airline trade group. "But you're also eliminating the need for a printer."

That represents a cost savings for airlines and greater convenience for many travelers.

"I would love it," said Houston's Tom Schrier, who flies nearly every week for his job as national sales manager for Kaneka Nutrients of Pasadena, Texas. "I can't always print a boarding pass, but I always have my BlackBerry with me."

A few international airlines, including Air Canada, Air Berlin and Spanair SA, already allow check-in with mobile devices, Lott said. It will be a while before U.S. airlines start allowing passengers to use cell phones to check in, he said. Many airlines meet bar-code standards, but the obstacle is satisfying security concerns, he added.

"In the U.S., the hurdle would be getting approval from the TSA [Transportation Security Administration]," Lott said. "They have some concerns about this."

The TSA requires travelers to have paper boarding passes that can be checked against government-issued picture IDs at security checkpoints. The agency would have to develop a scanner that couldn't be fooled by counterfeit bar codes, Lott said.

"TSA is always interested in new technologies that can improve the travel process while still maintaining security," Carrie Harmon, a spokeswoman for the TSA, said in an e-mail. "We look forward to continuing to work with IATA and others in the industry to explore this and other innovative ideas."

Continental already has taken steps to remove paperwork for passengers by converting to electronic tickets and adding bar code readers to self-service check-in kiosks, spokesman Dave Messing said.

"Now we're asking, `Can we make the paper boarding pass obsolete?' " he said in an e-mail. "The plans for this are not definitive, and work needs to be done before it could be implemented. But for a traveler who is going to be flying with a digital hand-held device anyway, eliminating the extra piece of paper can be a benefit."

Officials for Continental, Southwest, American and United airlines said they will consider the changes but have no timelines to implement them.

The IATA, which represents 240 airlines that account for 94 percent of international air travel, is requiring all airlines to stop using magnetic strip technology on boarding passes by the end of 2008 and to use the so-called two-dimensional bar codes by the end of 2010.

The 2-D bar codes encode data both horizontally and vertically, so they can hold more information than the one-dimensional versions, like the UPC symbols on a box of cereal.

Lott said the IATA will hold training sessions with airlines next year to help them implement the new technology.

Brad Hem writes for the Houston Chronicle.

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