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Air Travel

Airlines expanding cellphone boarding passes  Feb 01, 2009

More travelers are gaining a new weapon to help them avoid the long lines at the airport this spring and summer: their cellphones.

Mobile ticketing, in which travelers receive a special bar code on their cellphones that acts as a boarding pass, is taking off both in Europe and the United States.

Delta, Continental and American Airlines all have rolled out — and are expanding — mobile ticketing programs.

“This is more convenient for customers, and it’s also good for the environment,” said Josh Weiss, managing director of

Atlanta-based Delta launched its mobile ticketing program at New York’s LaGuardia Airport in June and has since expanded it to its hub in Minneapolis.

“We’re optimistic that we are, at most, weeks away from launching this in Atlanta,” Weiss said. “It will also roll out soon in Salt Lake City and Orlando, with additional facilities coming online in the coming months.”

He said it has taken more time than expected to install machines at airport gates with the ability to read the screens of hundreds of different types of phones.

Many European carriers have launched mobile ticketing trials, including Air France and Britain’s BMI, and the same process is being used for passenger rail service in Britain, Germany and other nations.

In the United States, the main pioneer behind the program is Continental Airlines, which has been enabling phone check-in services at certain airports since 2007.

Houston-based Continental offers its paperless boarding pass program at several airports across the country, including Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, San Antonio International Airport, Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental and Ronald Reagan Washington National.

Each paperless boarding pass displays an encrypted two-dimensional bar code along with passenger and flight information that will identify the traveler. Phones are then scanned by U.S. Transportation Security Administration workers at security as the passengers head for their gates.

“The deployment of the paperless technology, with Continental Airlines, signifies TSA’s ongoing commitment to develop and execute new technologies within aviation while enhancing security,” said Karen Burke, federal security director at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

Fort Worth, Texas-based American Airlines also introduced mobile boarding passes in November for passengers departing on domestic flights from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, Los Angeles International and John Wayne Airport in California’s Orange County.

If successful in these trial cities, the program could be extended to additional U.S. airports this year, according to airline officials.

The use of cellphones to check in has surged since 2007, when the International Air Transport Association introduced a global standard for boarding pass bar codes. The global trade body represents about 93 percent of scheduled international air traffic. As a result, the two-dimensional bar code is now more difficult to copy than the traditional bar codes seen at grocery stores.

Transportation-related mobile ticketing is expected to mushroom from 37.4 million transactions in 2007 to just over 1.8 billion by 2011, the majority of which will be for air and rail travel, according to Juniper Research, a firm in Hampshire, England.

The company also estimates that the airline industry could save $500 million a year by using mobile ticketing. Not only could airlines slash paper and ink costs, but also the costs of the magnetic strip encoding equipment required to print tickets on paper with magnetic stripes.

Researchers say airlines could pass on any savings to their customers.

To use mobile boarding passes, which allow customers to go straight to security and then on to the aircraft, an active e-mail account and an Internet-enabled phone is required.

“Often when people are headed away for a trip they have time to print out a boarding pass in their office,” Weiss said. “But when they are headed back home they are often running, and so it’s nice to have the ability to check in from a cab or from a train.”

Analysts said that mobile ticketing is a win-win situation for both passengers and airlines.

“Internationally the process has caught on faster, with even Estonian Airlines having introduced mobile phone check-in,” said Ernest Arvai, president of the Arvai Group, a consulting firm to the airline industry based in Windham, N.H. “I suspect that Europe will lead the way.”

Germany-based Lufthansa even has a “test the mobile boarding pass” feature on its Web site, presumably to convert the skeptical.

And Spain’s Spanair Airlines predicts mobile tickets will make up 10 percent of its total ticketing transactions by the end of this year.

Arvai said he expected widespread implementation of mobile ticketing around the world by 2010.

“The benefits to the consumer are that there is less paper to carry or to lose and it is easy,” he said. “You could change a flight, check in and go to the next gate without ever having to stand in line.

“For airlines, the benefits are financial,” Arvai said, “as there are fewer kiosks and paper and fewer ground staff.”

Airlines expanding cellphone boarding passes
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