Paperless Boarding

By  Susan Nunziata — July 31, 2008

Frequent flyers rejoice: mobile boarding pass trials are underway at airports in Houston, Newark, Boston and Washington, D.C. for passengers of Continental Airlines. Northwest Airlines is also using the technology for passengers flying out of Indianapolis.

Thomas Gagne, Senior Manager, Technology Division at Continental Airlines, says that about 2,000 passengers per day are taking advantage of the service.

The goals are to reduce the use of printed paper, reduce wait-time for passengers at airport check-in kiosks, encourage off-site check-in and streamline operations throughout the airport, says Gagne.

For bag check-in, passengers can take their mobile device to the check-in kiosk and scan it there to get their bag tags. At security checkpoints, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers are using the Workabout Pro rugged mobile computers from Psion Teklogix to electronically scan boarding passes on passengers' mobile phones and PDAs. Each airport is using 25 Psion handhelds, which are shared by TSA crew members.

The Psion devices are IP65-rated for water and dust resistance and can withstand multiple five-foot drops to concrete.

It also had to have a scanner that could read 2D barcodes -- which are much more secure than the 1D variety -- and it had to accommodate a variety of screen sizes and resolution qualities, says Tony Condi, Director of Marketing with Psion Teklogix.

At the gate, airport employees use the gate reader to scan the barcodes prior to boarding.

Each paperless boarding pass contains a two-dimensional barcode along with passenger and flight information. The application's primary developer toolkit is the .Net framework, says Gagne. A secure web service was designed to digitally assign barcodes to passengers using an elliptical signature algorithm.

Gagne says Continental considered a variety of digital signature solutions and barcode symbologies before settling on the ECDSA digital signature encoded into a 2D Aztec barcode. This had the best shot of working across a variety of devices.

Gagne notes that the pilot phase has raised several logistical challenges, including making sure the barcodes will scan on all the different devices in use, and making sure the wireless infrastructure available at the airports can support the handheld devices in use by the TSA agents.

In addition, right now, the system only supports one traveler per device; work is being done to make it possible for multiple boarding passes to be accessed on a single device without slowing things down at security checkpoints.

Indeed, Gagne says "the interaction between TSA agents and consumers is our biggest risk of failure." The airline is continuing to work with the TSA on employee training.

Industry integration is also a factor--if your travel plans change within the Continental Airlines ecosystem, all is well. But, if you need to use your boarding pass on another airline, for now you're out of luck.

Gagne says the TSA is embracing the technology because it offers a higher degree of security than paper boarding passes, which have no validation or security features on them at all.

Continental is working with the TSA and the International Air Transport Association to expand the program to additional airports, as well as to develop an international standard for paperless boarding passes.

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