TrendContinental first in nation to use paperless boarding

Published 5 December 2007

Continental passengers at Houston airport can now board planes by showing their cell phones or PDAs to security checkers; checkers scan rectangular bars on the cell phones’ or PDAs’ screens, which contain passengers personal and travel information

If the late-1970s television show “The Paper Chase” were to be produced today, it would probably be called “The Paperless Chase.” First there was the paperless office, and now there is the paper boarding pass. Some Continental Airlines passengers leaving Houston will be the first in the nation to board flights without waving a paper boarding pass, as long as they have a cell phone handy. A unique new check-in procedure using cell phones or PDAs as boarding passes was unveiled by Continental Airlines and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at George Bush Intercontinental Airport yesterday. The Houston Chronicle’s Bill Hensel writes that the three-month pilot program involves technology using encrypted bar codes on mobile device screens, something not being used anywhere else in the world, TSA official Melvin Carraway said. “We have been in favor of this for a long time and had fairly consistent dialogue with TSA on our desire to do this,” said Mark Bergsrud, a senior vice president for Houston-based Continental. “We were ready technically and we are pretty nimble with our ability to develop software and test it.” Carraway said the TSA, which has had a problem with people trying to use fraudulent paper boarding passes in the past, is confident the technology can’t be cracked.

The program will allow passengers to receive boarding passes electronically, then present bar codes on the screen to be scanned by TSA security officers at the checkpoint, according to Continental. Ultimately, it could eliminate the need for a paper document besides photo identification. Continental is the first U.S. carrier to test paperless boarding passes. Initially, the pilot program will be used solely on Continental flights at Intercontinental. If successful, plans call for it to be rolled out to other airlines in about three months, Carraway said. “The idea was to find a way to provide security,” he said.

TSA had expressed reservations in the past about aspects of the electronic check-in for security reasons, but it appears solidly behind the technology which is being developed in the partnership with Continental. Continental passengers will be the first group to use the new technology, but the TSA also wants to expand the use of encrypted bar codes whether on paper or on screens, according to Callaway. Continental was chosen for the program because it has been working aggressively with the TSA for on the use of the technology. “Working with them, the technology is at a point where it can be piloted,” TSA spokeswoman Andrea McCauley said. “The technology in itself is really beneficial from a security standpoint in that the information embedded in the bar code cannot be altered. So it is an additional layer of security.”

The encrypted data is a summary of passenger information, such as the traveler’s name and flight information. Each paperless boarding pass will display a two-dimensional bar code — which looks like a rectangle of TV snow, as opposed to parallel lines of a traditional bar code — along with passenger and flight information which will identify the traveler. TSA document checkers will have handheld scanners to validate the authenticity. Continental said the new technology, open immediately to passengers who check in online, heightens the ability to detect fraudulent boarding passes while improving customer service and reducing paper use. “It is going to be significant for customers but conceptually it is real simple,” Bergsrud said. “And we love to save paper. It is good for the environment.” Continental said the paperless pilot program is consistent with the global standard of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) for bar coding of passenger boarding passes. The IATA, which represents 240 airlines comprising 94 percent of international air travel, is requiring all airlines to stop using magnetic strip technology on boarding passes by the end of 2008 and to use the so-called two-dimensional bar codes by the end of 2010. “It is a great technology,” she said. “We are really excited about rolling this out and having a successful pilot.”