Airlines Boost Self-Service With Mobile Check-In

A bar code on a mobile browser i i

A bar code on a cell phone or smart phone mobile browser can be read by a scanner at security and at the gate when a passenger boards. Courtesy of Continental hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Continental
A bar code on a mobile browser

A bar code on a cell phone or smart phone mobile browser can be read by a scanner at security and at the gate when a passenger boards.

Courtesy of Continental

Giving It A Try

U.S.-based airlines that are testing mobile check-in include American, Alaska, Continental, Delta

and Northwest.

Foreign carriers that are already using the technology include Air Canada, Air France, Air New Zealand, Austrian Airlines, BMI, Cathay Pacific, China Southern Airlines, Hainan Airlines, KLM, Lufthansa, Qatar Airways and Scandinavian Airlines.

Source: International Air Transport Association

Read the All Tech Considered blog, where Omar Gallaga, who covers technology culture for the Austin American-Statesman, has more on the mobile travel experience.

Read More About Online Booking Troubles

The sound — and sight — of cell phones is all too familiar in airports.

And it's likely to become even more of a presence as many airlines move toward a paperless check-in system by expanding what customers can do from their Internet-enabled mobile phones. It's part of the industry's continued emphasis on self-service.

At Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va., Mark Shalz checks in at one of Delta's electronic kiosks with a Bluetooth headset in his ear and a BlackBerry in his hand.

After swiping his credit card, and making his selections on the touch screen, the kiosk prints out his boarding pass.

"Usually what I do is I just have my ticket number e-mailed to me on my BlackBerry and then I use that — instead of carrying a ticket — I just use that for all of my information," Shalz says. "And I use the kiosk then to go ahead and plug that information in."

Shalz, a trainer for Graystone Associates Inc., in Kansas City, Mo., says it would be "a lot more convenient" if he could handle all of this from his BlackBerry.

A New Frontier For Travel

Cell phones and smart phones are fast becoming the new frontier for everything from booking air travel to checking in. Airlines including American, Delta and Continental are testing mobile and smart phone check-in technology at more than a dozen U.S. airports. And a number of foreign carriers have already implemented it.

"What we do is we facilitate the ability for a passenger to check in on their phone just as they would check in on the airline's regular Web site," says Rob Borucki, a solution manager for mobile travel and gaming at NCR, a Dayton, Ohio-based technology company. NCR is working with the airlines and the Transportation Security Administration to further integrate mobile phones into the travel experience.

The final result for travelers is the appearance of a boarding pass with a square bar code on their mobile browser. The bar code can be read by a scanner at security and at the gate when a passenger boards, Borucki says.

Trials And Errors

Greg Brockway, CEO of Tripit.com — a company that gives people mobile access to their itineraries — has been trying out this technology on his iPhone.

"My experience has been, so far, that while the idea is great, there are still a few kinks to work out in the system," he says.

In a Twitter post last month, Brockway described how the bar code he displayed on his phone "stumped 3 agents."

Still, he is enthusiastic about the concept of being able to check in by just punching a few buttons on his phone while he's in a cab or in a meeting and then make a beeline for security and the gate.

The Move Toward Self-Service

Travelers remain die-hard users of their cell phones for another important airport ritual — venting frustrations.

But the airport experience could become even more aggravating as the airlines outsource more work to the traveler.

"In each case airlines are essentially expecting customers to bring their own technology to the process, whether it be a PC, a PDA or a mobile phone," says airline consultant Robert Mann Jr., president of R.W. Mann & Co.

Analysts and road warriors see mobile phones as a complement to — not a replacement for — Web sites and kiosks that facilitate self-service.

"It will become almost like a pocket travel agent or a pocket travel assistant," says NCR's Borucki.

But regardless of how fast or how smart your phone is, there's still no guarantee that you'll whisk through security.

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