Paperless Air Travel: Scan your phone to get on board

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Air travelers in Canada, Japan, Spain and Germany can navigate the airport without a paper boarding pass, instead using their cell phones to provide the information formerly printed on paper. Such high-tech travel for Americans and the rest of the world has come a step closer following recent action by an international airline group, which adopted a paper-free technology standard.

The technology behind the paperless travel may look familiar. Passengers who use Web-based check-in services to print their own boarding passes may have noticed odd-looking “2D” bar codes on their passes. At the gate, airline representatives scan the printed bar codes to validate the home-printed passes. A paperless version of the 2D technology, now a recently accepted worldwide standard by the International Air Transport Association, creates an electronic image of such a bar code for passengers to store on their cell phones. The IATA action amounts to an industry endorsement of paperless check-in, since the group’s membership includes most of the world’s major airlines.

The technology, which works on personal digital assistants, smartphones and standard cell phones, removes a step from the Web-based check-in process. Passengers can sign up for the paperless service by registering their cell phones when purchasing a ticket. The airline then sends the bar-code boarding pass to the phone, or sends directions on downloading the code manually. At the gate, passengers hold the phones beneath the airline’s scanner.

Traditional bar codes, printed for years on everything from tuna-fish cans to cereal boxes, use a series of vertical bars to encode a small amount of data, typically up to about 10 characters. While that’s good enough to distinguish a can of Bumble Bee tuna from a can of Purina cat food, it’s not enough to hold a passenger’s name, flight number, airport code and other information stored on a boarding pass. The newer 2D codes use a matrix, or pattern, of squares for a more complex encoding. A 2D bar code can hold 60 characters or more. Modern scanners are required to read the more detailed information in 2D bar codes.
Four airlines have begun testing the technology on selected routes. Air Canada, for example, started using it in September for domestic flights and some outward-bound international flights. Because the technology was being launched in separate hemispheres, airlines are using three variations of the 2D bar-code technology. The system adopted by the IATA will work with any of the three bar-code technologies.

A spokesman for Southwest Airlines said that airlines set up to read the 2D codes on paper are ready to read the digital version on cell-phone screens. Southwest and other airlines say they have no timetable for introducing paperless boarding. Before they can do that, the Transportation Security Administration must sign off on the concept. The TSA, which requires paper boarding passes, would need to add scanners and computer monitors to view the digital boarding passes. A spokesman said it’s too early in the process for the agency to have taken a stance on the idea. “We’re glad to work with the airline industry to support whatever the latest, greatest technology is, as long as all the security issues are addressed,” TSA spokesman Niko Melendez says.