Go mobile: the future of mobile boarding passes

1 Jul 2010 by AndrewGough
The technology for mobile boarding passes is maturing fast. Jenny Southan investigates which airlines offer the service The smartphone has become an item we would be lost without now that we rely on its multifarious functions to organise our lives. When it comes to travel, many airlines now offer an iPhone app or the ability to check in online through a mobile site, as well as consult timetables, book flights or manage loyalty scheme points. Relatively few yet offer the ability to download a boarding pass, but according to a report published earlier this year by mobile telecoms analyst Juniper Research, this feature is bound to catch on soon. It predicts that by 2014, nearly 15 billion tickets will have been delivered to mobile devices around the world, up from two billion last year, with services developing fastest in the transport sector. Meanwhile, mobile ticketing provider Trinity Mobile, which works with Bmi and Austrian Airlines, announced in March that the number of mobile boarding passes it sent jumped from 50,000 in 2008 to 600,000 last year. Part of the reason we have not seen immediate uptake across the board for this service is down to how individual travellers feel about breaking away from conventional methods of doing things. A few years ago travellers were making the transition from checking in at the airport to doing it online at home or in the office, but they may not be ready for another wholesale change. A recent businesstraveller.com poll revealed that only 22.5 per cent of readers had used a mobile boarding pass, although this will be partly down to availability. The recent biannual Unisys Security Index found that it is the younger generation that is most open to new technology. Some three-quarters (76 per cent) of 18- to 24-year-olds in the UK said they would feel secure using their mobile devices as airline boarding passes, compared with just under half of all UK device users. So what are mobile boarding passes and how do they work? After you have used text messaging or an internet- or WAP-enabled phone to check in online, some airlines will allow you to download in PDF or image format, or access via a link or email, an electronic boarding pass with an International Air Transport Association (IATA) standardised 2D barcode on it. You then simply pass this over a scanner at the airport. The idea is to have all the information you need on your phone instead of using a paper ticket. Obvious pitfalls may be a dead battery or a lack of 3G or wifi coverage, but Philip Wagnert, director of product strategy and development for Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), says: “We always have a back-up so we can access the customer in our systems. We will then issue a standard boarding pass.” A number of airlines claim to offer this service but check carefully whether it is available at the airport you are flying from and if you need a print-out of the pass as well. For example, Air Asia requires passengers to scan their mobile boarding pass at a self-service kiosk at the airport and then get a paper version, which is somewhat self-defeating. Robert Clegg, commercial director of Trinity Mobile, says: “The scanners that are used for the barcodes are already in place across most of Europe as part of an IATA drive to have all airline boarding passes barcoded, so there is no physical or technical reason for them not to be using them across the whole of Europe and internationally.” He adds: “I can’t see a single reason why in the next three to five years the majority of boarding passes won’t become mobile. It’s easier and more manageable, and the codes also read better than printed ones because quite often we don’t have any control over the quality of the print-out – the printer may have been running out of ink, for example, or the paper has crumpled up in your pocket.” So what is holding back those carriers that don’t yet offer it? As usual, it’s down to money, as significant investment in the systems that support the technology is required. As Trinity’s Clegg says: “Airlines have a lot to deal with right now so it is not necessarily high on their list of priorities.” Key players that are yet to get on board include British Airways, Easyjet, Emirates, Etihad Airways and Virgin Atlantic. Chris Carmichael, manager of ba.com and mobile innovation, says: “We watch this area with great interest and see many different approaches to providing this service. To make mobile boarding passes work we need to make sure the technology and airport processes line up, and that customer demand is there.” A spokesman for Easyjet says: “This is not something we currently offer although we would not rule out a move in this direction in the future.” But, tellingly, Clegg reveals: “We are looking at working with a couple of other airlines whose commercial model is not free – they charge for anything and everything extra, so you can imagine who those might be. In these cases it might cost 50p or £1 to have [your boarding pass] sent to your phone.” (In most cases accessing your mobile boarding pass is free.) SAS rolled its version out at the end of last year and Wagnert says it’s proved “hugely popular”. He adds: “We see high penetration on shorter routes but it’s also growing on longer European routes. We are also opening it up to more passengers – previously it was limited to solo bookings but from May 25 we opened it up to six passengers per booking, and now issue individual boarding passes to them.” See the panel below for which other airlines offer the service. Visit juniperresearch.com, trinitymobile.co.uk, unisyssecurityindex.com  

Which airlines offer mobile boarding passes?

  • Air Canada – domestic flights, flights from Canada to international destinations, and from select international destinations to Canada
  • Air France-KLM – from France and the Netherlands to all European destinations; from Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Norway, Spain and Sweden to destinations in the Netherlands and France; within France
  • Air New Zealand – domestic flights only
  • American Airlines – from select domestic destinations, and from London Heathrow to the US
  • Bmi – between select domestic destinations
  • Continental Airlines – from select domestic destinations, as well as from Frankfurt and London Heathrow
  • Delta Air Lines – from select domestic destinations
  • Finnair – all international flights from Amsterdam, Brussels, Copenhagen, Gothenburg, London Heathrow, Manchester, Madrid, Oslo, Paris, Prague, Riga, Tallinn, Vilnius and Warsaw (Not from Finland or Sweden as SMS is sufficient)
  • Iberia – Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Bilbao, Copenhagen, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Geneva, Madrid (for destinations in the Schengen area), Munich, Paris Orly, Prague, Stockholm, Vienna and Zurich
  • Virgin Blue – between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane
  • Miles and More: Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines, Luxair, Swiss, Tap Air Portugal (plus Air Canada and SAS) – all routes from Germany except to Tel Aviv, and from select European and international destinations
  • Qantas – select domestic flights
  • Qatar Airways – from Berlin, Doha, Frankfurt, Kuala Lumpur, London Heathrow, Manchester, Munich, Paris and Stockholm
  • SAS – flights within and between Scandinavia and Finland; from Scandinavia and Finland to Europe and Asia; from Aberdeen, Alicante, Amsterdam, Athens, Barcelona, Birmingham, Brussels, Gdansk, Las Palmas, London Heathrow, Madrid, Malaga, Manchester, Nice, Palma, Paris, Poznan, Vilnius and Warsaw
  • United Airlines – within the US, Puerto Rico and US Virgin Islands from select domestic destinations
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