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Your Next E-Ticket: Bypass Check-In With Your Cell Phone

With harried road warriors in mind, a handful of major airlines are letting passengers check in with their cell phones.


by Dana Wollman on February 24, 2009

Despite recent evidence to the contrary, the major airlines are not out to make your life miserable. A handful of carriers, including American Airlines and Continental Airlines, have kicked off pilot programs designed to let you skip the check-in counter or kiosk while helping the environment. And they’re using a business traveler’s best friend to make it all possible—the cell phone.

Sure, if you’re coming from home or the office you can check in from your desktop and print an e-ticket, but mobile check-in promises greater speed and convenience. After all, using your phone—instead of being stuck ticketless in traffic on the way to the airport—could be the difference between making or missing that flight.

Boarding planes with the swipe of a phone is just the latest in a longer line of self-service check-in options, including airport kiosks and online check-in. All the major domestic airlines, including American, Continental, Delta, Southwest, United Airlines, and US Airways have mobile sites. But not all let users check the status of their flights. To do that, you’re still better off downloading a dedicated app, such as Flight Status for iPhone ($4.99) or WorldMate Live Gold for BlackBerry ($99.95 a year), which among other things, pulls information from FlightStats.com.

How Mobile Boarding Works

Travelers who want to take advantage of mobile boarding must first check in through the airline’s mobile site on their phone’s browser. As long as the device is Web-enabled and can receive e-mails and display images, you’re good to go, regardless of the screen size.

After checking in, you’ll see a two-dimensional, encrypted bar code on the screen. Provided your airport has the right equipment, airline officials can scan the bar code on your cell, both at security checkpoints and the gate. If for some reason the system fails, attendants can print your boarding pass at the gate.

American Airlines lets passengers use their cell phone as a boarding pass in Chicago O’Hare International, Los Angeles International, and John Wayne–Orange County airports. Continental has programs in George Bush Intercontinental, LaGuardia International, Newark Liberty International, Ronald Reagan Washington National, Cleveland Hopkins International, San Antonio International, Austin-Bergstrom International, and Logan International airports. Delta is running trials at New York’s LaGuardia International Airport. In total, 13 airlines worldwide offer mobile boarding options.

“We view it as a customer-service initiative,” said Mary Clark, a spokeswoman for Continental Airlines. “Our customers have been telling us that they like self-service options, and this is just an addition to a number of other options we have available; allowing them to use their own technology to save time and paper.”

But airports and airlines appreciate that these bar codes cannot be replicated, even when printed. “For the TSA it’s an additional security layer to be able to ensure a passenger is not trying to use a fake boarding pass,” said Lara Uselding, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration. Acknowledging the rare few instances of passengers printing counterfeit boarding passes, she said that the TSA hopes to apply the same embedding technology into its paper passes as it does its mobile ones.

Ready for Take-Off?

Despite its convenience, mobile boarding still has its drawbacks. For now, the U.S. airlines are offering the service just on domestic flights, and since only a handful of airports are participating, you might have to wait in line for a paper boarding pass on your return trip. Moreover, booking a reservation for multiple people—say, family members—is less convenient; your phone can display only one boarding pass (i.e., for one passenger). Plus, it’s limited to direct flights. And mobile boarding passes may not prove time-saving for those who check luggage (not that you’d want to, given the $25 fees some airlines charge to check a first bag).

Although Clark would not say how Continental Airlines identifies which airports should be equipped for mobile boarding, she said that the airline intends to roll out the service to all airports where Continental operates. (The TSA and a spokesperson for American Airlines made similar predictions.)

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which created the bar code standard and whose 230-plus member airlines compose 93 percent of air traffic, has no deadline for the implementation of mobile boarding passes, but it has mandated that bar code–based boarding passes replace the current magnet standard by the end of 2010 among all members. The association set this deadline in 2005. Since then, airports and airlines alike have had to take on the costs of upgrading their technology, which will save the industry up to $1.5 billion every year.

“It’s a massive undertaking to convert anything industry-wide,” said Lorne Riley, an IATA spokesman. “If you look at what we’ve done successfully with electronic ticketing, we went from 20 percent ticketing in 2004 to 100 percent just four years later. With bar-coded boarding passes, we’re using a similar time frame. Within five years we will [have] rid the industry of these expensive, outdated solutions.” He added that more than 200 airlines were bar code–enabled by the end of 2008.

Grant Martin, editor of travel blog Gadling.com, said his one experience with mobile boarding didn’t save time—it wasted it. When flying nonstop from New York to Detroit on Northwest Airlines, he had no problem checking in using his iPhone. But when he approached his first TSA agent, presenting her with his phone and driver’s license, he was greeted with an annoyed, “Oh ... one of those.” The bar code didn’t register at first, but it worked once Martin zoomed in on it.

When he advanced to the security checkpoint the agent made him put his phone in a bucket but then asked why he didn’t have his boarding pass on him. Martin explained. The agent’s response? A roll of the eyes and a pat down.

Continental’s Clark, who said mobile boarding passes have more-obvious benefits for the airlines, contended that mobile boarding passes need more work—not just time. “For customers to save time checking in, it has to be convenient. You have to be able to pay fees for checking bags and purchasing upgrades via a phone or mobile device,” she said. “And you need support from the airline staff if there’s a technical problem.” We’re going to go out on a limb and say that mobile boarding won’t go anywhere until there’s no need for tech support and all agents become better educated

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