Paperless Boarding Passes for Smartphones Hit SFO

San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is the Bay Area's first airport to employ a secure barcode-scanning system for paperless boarding passes so travelers with Internet-connected smartphones, like BlackBerrys and iPhones, can check-in using their handhelds. The system, which is currently being used on an experimental-basis, has the potential to save airlines money on printing costs and reduce paper-waste, as well as relieve potential stresses to travelers of misplacing boarding passes.

But a number of North American airlines, including Continental, have been using various barcode-scanning systems and paperless boarding passes for years, and they're still relatively uncommon. In fact, SFO's Transportation Security Administration (TSA) director, Ed Gomez, told SFGate.com that electronic-boarding-pass systems, which have been officially sanctioned by the TSA, are currently in limited use at only 30 U.S. airports. More than 3,400 "major" airports exist in the United States, according to the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) 2009 National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems (NPIAS).

To employ the paperless passes, travelers simply open a message sent to them by Continental and show both the message, with an embedded barcode, and their legal picture identification to TSA screeners at airport gates. TSA screeners at participating airports are positioned next to associated scanning kiosks, where they scan customers' encrypted flight information. The paperless passes are also scanned again by airline representatives at gates when travelers board planes.

Each kiosk resembles a parking meter, and they cost airlines approximately $2,000 each, according to SFGate.

In addition to Continental, American, Alaska, Delta and Northwest are all reportedly using the same barcode-scanning and paperless boarding pass tech. And an SFO spokesman told SFGate that additional airlines have expressed interest in the systems, though nothing has come of that interest.

Continental became the very first U.S. airline to pilot paperless boarding passes back in the fall of 2007, when it launched a related program at Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport. At the time, Continental claimed to have been working with the TSA for years on the technology.

Air Canada was also making headlines at the time for its use of paperless passes, though I haven't heard much on that front in recent days.

Nearly two full years and many flights without a single paperless pass later, I have to wonder when the whole mobile-phone-based boarding pass thing is going to hit the big time--if it will at all. It seems like a no-brainer, considering the recent popularity and uptake of smartphones in the United States.

But clearly the airlines and TSA aren't quite ready to put their stamps of approval on the systems just yet--at least on a large scale. The delay could relate to security concerns or the fact that the systems might not yet be able to offer the same experience as paper-boarding passes. For example, early users of the paperless-boarding-pass system noted some limitations, including the fact that multiple passengers travelling groups couldn't employ the system.

Whatever the reason, it's clearly taking U.S. airlines longer than they would've liked--and I expected--to launch paperless-boarding-pass systems across the country. I honestly hope our mobile devices become the airline boarding passes of the future, but I'm still not convinced that'll be the case.

For now I'm just hoping a U.S. carrier at my local airport, Boston Logan International, decides to join the party. As is, I've yet to have the opportunity to give the systems a test drive. And I travel frequently enough that this fact in itself is particularly telling.

This story, "Paperless Boarding Passes for Smartphones Hit SFO" was originally published by CIO.

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