I can't offer up sob stories about layovers at Heathrow or two-hour check-in lines -- my most sordid airport experience involved losing a bottle of 100% agave tequila to Mexican airport security. Still, I always pride myself on using savvy traveler technology like e-tickets and self-serve kiosks, because lines are for suckers.
Well, I certainly felt like one when the
International Air Transport Association (IATA) recently told me the Canadians have been one-upping me since September 2007. My northern neighbors, I am told, have been flashing only their cell phones and a dashing smile while breezing through check-in and boarding, courtesy of
Air Canada and bar-code technology.
"So how does it work and how can I get it?" I hastily queried.
Here's how Canadians do it:
When booking tickets online, passengers simply provide their mobile phone, PDA or smartphone number; an SMS text message is then sent to the screen of their mobile device the day before the flight. This message includes a recap of flight details and allows the passenger to set seat preferences and validate check-in.
A second text message sent the day of the flight contains a 2D bar-code that the passengers scan when they board the plane, walk into an airport lounge or enter any place normally requiring a paper boarding pass. Skipping the check-in desk entirely, bags can be left at a drop point prior to security screening.
While the service is now available only for domestic Canadian flights and departures to non-U.S. international destinations,
Transportation Security Administration approval for flights to and from the U.S. is pending.
Preparing For Take-Off
Air Canada passenger usage of the paperless service has doubled every week since September, says Air Canada spokesperson John Reber. "It's been a big hit."
At a conference earlier this month, in response to airline request, over 240 airlines comprising the IATA approved a global standard for paperless 2D bar-code boarding passes similar to the 2005 2D standard for paper passes.
Airline response was like the excitement around
iPhone," says Eric Leopold, project manager for the IATA. "This sets the foundation
for paperless boarding and will have a potentially huge impact."
While most Air Canada customers using mobile-boarding technology are PDA (BlackBerry) users, the IATA says the technology worked on a five-year-old mobile-phone tested with three different scanners. The cost-effective, paperless bar codes can be read by existing barcode scanners, eliminating any expensive technology upgrades.
I took a flight with
about three months ago and all I used my cell phone for was calling mom at the airport. So when can I be like the Canadians?
Noncommittal phrases like "could be a benefit to customers" and "we're exploring the idea" abounded when I asked U.S. airlines about their plans to implement paperless barcode technology. Continental, which has been using e-tickets and self-serve kiosks for some time, said the technology is consistent with their paperless initiative, per spokesperson Mary Clark. "Work needs to be done before it is implemented," Clark says.
is not actively looking at paperless technology at the moment, "but it's certainly a prospect," says spokesman Sebastian White.
both announced they are considering the paperless solution, and the technology has been adopted already in Japan and some European countries like Spain.
Airlines will have to test the boundaries of the new technology before a full rollout is conceivable, but Thomas Romig, manager of airport IT of the
Airports Council International, sees a definite change in passenger dynamics. "The whole check-in process is moving outside the airport," he says.
Still, it's impossible for any airport to use only mobile-phone checking, Romig says: "Imagine if you got to the airport and your battery runs out."
The IATA has set a deadline for the end of 2010 for full implementation of barcoded boarding passes (paper and mobile), which it predicts will save the airline industry over $500 million annually by reducing the number of check-in desks, and saving on development of new terminals and scanners.
It sounds like the paperless bar code is well on its way. In the meantime, I'll just have to keep printing my e-tickets and steeling myself for the security lines.