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Going paperless: Tech-savvy air travelers on board

The Transportation Security Administration is conducting a pilot program it hopes will streamline the boarding process, in part by eliminating the need for paper boarding passes.Leon Neal / AFP - Getty Images

The next time you fly, you may not need to bother to print out your boarding pass.

The Transportation Security Administration is working with some domestic airlines to test paperless boarding passes, which allow air travelers to download the document onto a cell phone or other mobile device.

“We’re becoming a much more digital society,” said David Staas of JiWire, a mobile media channel that works with many airports. “So using smartphones for paperless boarding just completes the circle.”

But don't disconnect your printer just yet. While some tech-savvy passengers may be ready for it, experts say paperless boarding won’t be successful until it is both reliable and universal.

“One of the first times I used one, my phone browser refreshed and I lost the boarding pass 30 seconds before boarding,” recalled Walter Hopgood, a frequent business traveler from Damacas, Ore.

Many air travelers are already comfortable checking in for flights via computer and printing boarding passes at work, home or in an airport kiosk. Paperless boarding passes, the TSA believes, would help streamline the journey from security to the jet bridge while improving the agency's ability to detect fraud.

Path to paperless
Paperless boarding has been an option for travelers flying on some Asian, European and Canadian airlines since 2007, but the United States has been behind the curve on adopting the new technology.

“We were slower to get Internet access on cell phones, slower to get affordable data plans on cell phones and slower than Europeans to start using cell phones for accessing data,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst for Forrester Research. “The new generation of smartphones is changing that.”

The delay also had a lot to do with TSA, said Catherine Mayer, vice president of airport services at SITA, an information technology company serving the aviation industry. “The agency had additional security requirements it wanted airlines to meet before it would allow paperless boarding to be introduced here.”

Continental Airlines was the first airline to develop software that could encrypt a mobile pass that met TSA’s authentication standards. In December 2007, passengers at Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport became the first U.S. travelers to kick off the TSA’s pilot program for paperless boarding. Since then, the program has expanded to include five U.S. airlines (Alaska, American, Continental, Delta and United), 71 domestic airports and Frankfurt Airport in Germany.

Now, passengers on participating airlines traveling to or through approved airports can receive a boarding pass as an e-mail containing a two-dimensional bar code downloadable to a smartphone or other mobile device. That bar code, along with identification, should be all that’s needed to get through security and onto a plane.

Win-win, despite the wrinkles?
While electronic boarding passes do save paper and enhance airport security, the pilot program is not glitch-free.

Some passengers have encountered scanners with spent batteries or security-checkpoint staffers untrained or uninterested in the mobile pass pilot program. For example, when Justin Meyer of Kansas City showed up at 5 a.m. at a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., security checkpoint armed with his electronic boarding pass, a TSA employee pressed him for paper. “I didn’t have it,” Meyer recalled, “so I had to wait about 10 minutes while they found the scanner and plugged it in.”

Other travelers have stored a paperless pass on a smartphone that has lost its charge. Or they’ve sailed through the TSA checkpoint paper-free, only to discover that an airline is using a gate without a scanner. Or they’ve discovered some airlines only deliver one paperless pass per smartphone — a problem if you’re traveling with a family of four.

“Like any new technology or service, there needs to be a transition period when everyone is learning the way to proceed,” said Steve Lott of International Air Transport Association, an industry trade group.

One of the biggest frustrations passengers have with the program is that it is only offered by some airlines and at some airports.

“Feedback from passengers has been not so much about reliability, but about consistency and the desire to have the product offered at all airports that we serve,” said Jared Miller, Continental’s managing director of Self-Service and Emerging Technology.

Other airlines in the pilot program report the same response from customers. “And therein lies the challenge,” added Forrester’s Hartveldt. “Customers are becoming increasingly comfortable with all this. But to be successful, mobile-compatible boarding passes for domestic travel have to be ubiquitous.”

That’s what TSA has in mind, said Justin Taubman, the program manager for TSA’s mobile boarding pass program. The agency is currently working with vendors to develop equipment for a new boarding pass scanning system. “Once the new Credential Authenticating Boarding Pass Scanning System, or CAT/BPSS, is in place,” he said, “the pilot project will become an official TSA program.”