Continental Airlines testing mobile boarding passes

It looks like paper plane tickets are finally be superseded by mobile phones. According to the New York Times Continental Airlines have been testing mobile phone boarding passes since December. The airline industry has talked about mobile boarding passes (as opposed to mobile phone check-in) before, and the process has got the backing of the IATA (International Air Transport Association) but Continental is one of the first companies to actually go ahead with a full blown pilot.

Continental’s favoured system is a 2D barcode, which is scanned from the passengers’ mobiles and apparently harder to fake than other tokens.

I’m struggling to see a downside here: it saves time, saves paper, it saves the airlines a bit of cash and I’m far less likely to lose my mobile than I am a plane ticket. Please, airlines, hurry up and make mobile boarding passes the standard.

11 replies on “Continental Airlines testing mobile boarding passes”


So what happens if:

My battery is flat
My handset locks up (Mr Whatley – Testify!)
The ticket info gets deleted
The ticket info gets corrupted
My phone gets left in the taxi
I get mugged (Ewan – Testify!)
…and everyone’s favourite: Indian soldiers with purple beards

Most of these are very common day-to-day occurrences, which you can live with by other means – payphones, borrowing friend’s phones, web backups, other devices with info on them like laptops etc.

Mobile plane ticketing has much more serious implications if it goes toes-up than other ticketing applications. Movies? Bus? big deal, buy another – small cost and inconvenience. But flight? when you’re running late? paid a fortune, non-refundable? Boarding is closing, and you are left grappling with the vagaries of the Symbian OS….

I’d always be carrying a paper copy as backup. Which kinda defeats the purpose.

This one smells like solution looking for problem, methinks.



Yeah. I wouldn’t be that impressed if my handset was screwing up when I was trying to board, yeah… but then you can lose your bit of paper and you’re in the same boat. Granted a bit of paper doesn’t need to boot up and it won’t run out of ink…

Hang on….just re-read this and spotted my bad – I was confusing ticketing with boarding passes.

But my logic still stands, and I think is even reinforced.

What are the chances of loosing you boarding pass between check-in & gate? And really, they aren’t essential. I’ve been hurried straight through to the gate to find my pass waiting for me (they can reassign seats at the gate and so have the boarding pass printers right there).

And how hard is it for a passenger to hand a pass to the attendant? easy. No language barrier. Everyone understands it. But try to do this on mobile….I go cold just thinking how much of a cluster this will turn into. Most people have trouble finding anything more advanced than the dial button. What chance do we have asking people to bring up some graphic that was pushed to their phone an hour or so ago? How long will we spend in the queue while some numpty faffs about trying to get the pass back onto the screen so it can be scanned?

Trials tend to go well with small numbers of early adopters, using top-end devices. Remember 95% or whatever of us never mastered programming VCR’s, and 50% of a reasonably large country think Elvis is still alive. So why introduce so many additional points of failure, for both the device and user? Printed boarding passes are idiot-proof. All you need to do is hand it over. Maybe you should have to pass a Mobile Phone Competency Exam before being allowed to use this service, so as not to hold up the old-fashioned paper types or non-mobile owners in the queue.

Sorry, but just like being able to make calls or SMS on planes, this is an idea that solves a problem people didn’t need solving. Just because you can do something with a new technology does not mean you should.


I think you are a bit confused. You talk about tickets but the solution is for boarding passes? Tickets and boarding passes are very different things.

If any of the scenarios you outline occurs it’s trivial to reissue a paper boarding pass at the airport.

Electronic tickets (where the ticket is stored electronically with the airline) on the other hand are the norm for most airlines now, nothing to do with mobile. The piece of paper you prize so much is generally not a ticket, just a confirmation.

…and some more thoughts: how will the barcode be delivered to the handset?

Bluetooth – you must be joking.

RFID – see you in 5 years, minimum.

URL – so all mobiles render the same? everyone has mobile data enabled, including with any roaming partners? The interweb goes down anywhere in the chain?

SMS – it’s a barcode, duh.

MMS: OK, do-able. But what’s the image resolution of the code and your screen (think tiny fashion phones vs iPhone/N95)? Is there network coverage at the check-in point? What about the return leg of the journey? Does your MNO have an MMS roaming/interconnect agreement with your visited country?

What if you are travelling with someone else or children/elderly folks? Can you have multiple codes sent to one phone?

What if it’s a code share flight? Or the scanner goes down at the gate? At least with paper they can check by just READING it – with a barcode, there’s no fallback. The system needs to be 100% or you ain’t getting on the plane.

My friend (a senior BA cabin crew member) reckons this idea is the worst she’s heard. They need to very quickly identify seats and match passes up against passengers – many of whom don’t speak the same languages. They have enough problems with the paper system. Introducing technology into this will inevitably lead to long delays in actually getting on the plane. Even an additional 5-10 seconds per person when loading a 747 means an extra hour.

Fundamentally, you will still need your passport, and most people still check in luggage, meaning you need the receipts for the baggage tags. Currently these get stuck to your boarding pass, usually.

And security: Waht’s to prevent me from forwarding the pass on to someone else as eoither an MMS or a dumb screenshot? There’s no security system in place for MMS to prevent forwarding. Or a screenshot.

The idea of mobile boarding passes will only work for those without checked luggage, who have phones and networks that are configured correctly, have additional security and are tech-savvy enough to make it all work. Talk about niche.

…and with fingerprinting people seen as BA’s only way to ensure the right people get on the right planes at LHR T5, I don’t see mobile boarding passes solving any problems – only creating more.



Air Canada already offer this solution. With a URL link sent vis SMS. Do not worry about the mobile phones being different sizes, this is handled by companies that are on top of this. So no matter what phone you have it will work.

Spanair also offer this solution. They send an MMS, yes, a 2D barcode is no problem. However their solution is to print out a receipt from a dedicated printer/scanner that reads the barcode, you use this receipt to pass security and board. As for security, I am sure all the i’s and dotted and the t’s are crossed. We are talking about Spain here, terrorism is a common occurance with ETTA so I am sure they took it very seriously.

If you do not have MMS or mobile internet you do not use the service. If you are travelling awith infants you cannot use the service. Normally, all mobile phone check-in (not boarding pass) requires that you travel alone. Some even without luggage for the hold.

This service is made for the business man who is traveling without bags, and can walk right up to the serurity check point before boarding once s/he reaches to the airport.

Normally they do not stick you baggage tags to your boarding pass….they stick them to your ticket (or now-a-days confirmation, as tickets are virtual) Remember, you only keep the stub.

Hi Paul,

‘However their solution is to print out a receipt from a dedicated printer/scanner that reads the barcode, you use this receipt to pass security and board.’

…sorry, thought this idea was supposed to *remove* the pesky bits of paper? 😉

‘Normally they do not stick you baggage tags to your boarding pass….they stick them to your ticket (or now-a-days confirmation, as tickets are virtual) Remember, you only keep the stub.’

…what ticket? Haven’t seen a ticket for years. Hence they stick them to the passes, or sometiimes your passport.

‘This service is made for the business man who is traveling without bags, and can walk right up to the serurity check point before boarding once s/he reaches to the airport.’

…Here’s the rub…the proposal is to make this the default way of doing business, not the niche for uber-organised frequent fliers with multiple devices and connectivity up the wazoo. I’ve done some more looking into this, and you can deliver the required barcode info by SMS. But all the delivery/network/roaming/flat battery/scanner failure/loss of mobile/etc issues still remain.

Sure, if it’s there and it works I’ll use it. But if they come to rely on it and anything in the long, mega-technical system breaks down the chaos will be substantial. T5 anyone? Mission-critical systems should use the simplest technology available. That’s why passports are still wee paper books with ink stamps in them, and taxis still carry click-clack swipe machines. Your passport can get wet at the beach in Corfu or in a New York downpour and still let you back into Blighty.

Solution looking for problem.

Luddite? Moi?


Mike I agree with all your points about the battery, delivery, roaming etc. I did however say they stick it to your confirmation…and yes, or passport.

As for Spanair solution, you are right, it defeats the purpose, this in effect is the same solution as web check-in and using a kiosk to get your boarding pass.

However where you are wrong is that “the proposal is to make this the default way of doing business”. This will never work. Nor it is an IATA directive as e-ticketing, barcoded boarding passes, eFreight etc.

This is for the niche, it is clear. If you are an airline that has a high percentage of business travelers without luggage this will severely cut down the queues. Yes, it is a high tech solution for right now (in terms of people actually connecting to the internet with their mobile phones) however it is the way of the future. Look how SMS took off and now it is a standard.

Air Canada have the best solution. it allows the business traveler without luggage to go straight to security upon arriving at the airport.

Fact is that this service will only be offered to:
Single travelers, with or without luggage, from the Airlines home country airports (initially), on direct flights only, no code sharing allowed. Spanair only offer it to Schengen countries (therefore bypassing the issues of visa requirements and security checks)

So yes, it is niche, the question is whether the cost-benefit will be worth it to the airline. The fact is that kiosks cost a fortune, you have to pay a fee per person on the flight even if only 2 people from the whole flight uses it. So this might be a future solution to cut out the middle man (the kiosk).

This solution will only work on routes that have day business travel or over nighters. So if you are a small European carrier that does a lot of this kind of business it will definitely cut down on queues and costs at the home airport.

Question is whether the airports will go with it. All well and good implementing this system but if the airports do not accept you are stuck. Obviously Air Canada did not have a problem, Spanair obviously did.


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