Airlines Boost Self-Service With Mobile Check-In 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 this technology at more than a dozen U.S. airports. And a number of foreign carriers have already implemented it.
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Airlines Boost Self-Service With Mobile Check-In

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Airlines Boost Self-Service With Mobile Check-In

Airlines Boost Self-Service With Mobile Check-In

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris. And it's time once again for All Tech Considered.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: Memorial Day is just three weeks away and that means the unofficial start of the summer travel season. And in this down economy, the deals are piling up. We're joined, as we are most Mondays, by Omar Gallaga to talk about how technology can help you plan a smarter and a cheaper summer trip. And above all, a trip that is memorable. Welcome, Omar.

OMAR GALLAGA: Great to be here.

NORRIS: Now, many of us already book our plane tickets online. We use the Web to track down hotel reviews, find good deals on car rentals. But it sounds like we're taking things a step or two further today.

GALLAGA: Right. Well, you know, the tools that we carry around with us every day, our cell phones and our laptops, have become incredibly powerful for any serious traveler, whether it's cell phone apps, useful podcasts you can load into your MP3 player, or just Web sites to help you plan your trip. There's never been more tools available for anyone who's a frequent flyer or driver.

NORRIS: Since you mentioned frequent flyers, I guess let's start at the airport. Several airlines are test driving technology that allows you to check in with your phone. No more waiting in line. You wouldn't even have to use one of those little self check-in kiosks. And we sent NPR's Joshua Brockman to the airport to learn about this.

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JOSHUA BROCKMAN: It's a sound that's all too familiar in airports. At Reagan National Airport in Virginia, Mark Shalz checks in at one of Delta's electronic kiosks - 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.

Mr. MARK SHALZ: Usually what I do is I just have my ticket number emailed to me on my BlackBerry. And then I use that — instead of carrying a ticket — I just use that for all of my information. And then I use the kiosk then to go ahead and plug that information in.

BROCKMAN: What if you could do all of that just from your cell phone without the kiosk?

Mr. SHALZ: Oh, it would be very nice - a lot more convenient.

BROCKMAN: 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 this technology at more than a dozen U.S. airports. And a number of foreign carriers have already implemented it.

Mr. ROB BORUCKI (Executive, NCR): 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.

BROCKMAN: Rob Borucki is an executive with NCR, a Dayton, Ohio-based technology company. It's working with the airlines and the TSA to further integrate mobile phones into the travel experience.

Mr. BORUCKI: And then the final result is on their mobile browser they'll see a boarding pass with a square - what we call a 2D barcode. It's a little barcode that can be read at the gates for when the passenger boards.

BROCKMAN: Greg Brockway is CEO of — a company that gives people mobile access to their itineraries. He's been trying out this technology on his iPhone.

Mr. GREG BROCKWAY (CEO, My experience has been, so far, that while the idea is great, there are still a few kinks to work out in the system.

BROCKMAN: Travelers, of course, remain diehard users of their cell phones for another important airport ritual, venting frustrations.

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BROCKMAN: But the airport experience could become even more aggravating as the airlines outsource more work to the traveler. Airline consultant Robert Mann Jr.

Mr. ROBERT MANN JR. (Airline Consultant): The airlines are essentially expecting customers to bring their own technology to the process, whether it'd be a PC, a PDA or a mobile phone.

BROCKMAN: Analysts and road warriors see mobile phones as a complement — not a replacement for Web sites and kiosks that facilitate self-service. Rob Borucki of NCR.

Mr. BORUCKI: It will become almost like a pocket travel agent or a pocket travel assistant.

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

Joshua Brockman, NPR News.

NORRIS: So, Omar, we have yet another story about how advanced cell phones and smart phones are introducing all kinds of new conveniences into our lives. But when it comes to travel, what else can these handheld devices do for us?

GALLAGA: Well, you've seen the commercial that there's an app for that. Well, if you have a smart phone like an iPhone or a BlackBerry or a T-Mobile's G1 or any other phone that can easily access applications, there is a whole world of travel tools.

Last night I checked in on the iTunes app store and found 106 pages worth of just travel apps. Everything from tools to check your itinerary and flight delays to the AAA app, which allows to check 160,000 locations in the U.S. and Canada that offer discounts to AAA members.

NORRIS: So I guess this means no more paper maps or AAA TripTiks or those book size travel guides. I must say, though, I enjoy pulling maps open and pouring over them and carrying around those rough guides.

GALLAGA: Well, there's definitely not a screen big enough to fit the whole - the big map like that. But this is more supplementary. I mean, say, most people are familiar with the travel guides from Lonely Planet. Well, they just released their first city guide application for the city of Paris. And it costs 15.99.

They've also got a really good body of mobile phone apps, electronic phrase books, audio and video podcasts that you can really load up and just carry with you, have a lot of stuff on hand.

NORRIS: So when you mentioned those city guides, I guess it's really wonderful if you're doing walking tours, for instance. You have all that information right there in the palm of your hand.

GALLAGA: Right. I mean, like, if you're familiar with - in going to the museum and getting a walking tour, think of that for an entire city. There's lots of that available on iTunes and any other place that has travel podcasts.

NORRIS: So since we're at the cusp of the summer travel season, what kind of sites should we be heading toward if we're planning summer travel?

GALLAGA: Well, lest you think you need a BlackBerry of an iPod Touch to get the most out of technology, there's still lots of good old fashioned Web sites with really good information for you that you might not have heard of. I actually consulted a travel writer friend of mine, Sheila Scarborough, who suggested an alternative to, say, Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz - the ones we're most familiar with -, she tells me. It gives you a direct conduit to the airlines themselves.

So if you book through them you're actually booking through the airlines. You're not going through an intermediary. So if you have a problem with a cancellation or flight change, you're not having to go through a Travelocity or Expedia. You go directly to the airlines instead of going through a separate company.

She also suggests, which has really good deals on combo packages at rock bottom prices. And, you know, given the economy, a lot of budget travelers like, say, me, would - well, you wouldn't think you'd have access to luxury accommodations. But right now because so much of the travel industry's aiming at that low end, you might actually find really good deals on, say, you know, a Four Seasons, where you might've paid for a Days Inn a few years ago.

But if you do have a smart phone, one thing I can definitely recommend is get a good bathroom locator. There's an app called Sit or Squat that is available for iPhone and BlackBerry. You don't know when you're going to need it most, so definitely have it on hand.

NORRIS: You have got to be kidding me. Sit or Squat?

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GALLAGA: You've never been in a strange city looking for a bathroom?

NORRIS: You know, everyone has, but I just - I guess I shouldn't be surprised that they have come up with something, even for that.

GALLAGA: You got your GPS with you and the locator, and yeah, I mean, it's right there in your hand.

NORRIS: Thank you, Omar.

GALLAGA: Thanks very much for having me. And we actually are going to be linking to the Web sites we talked about, as well as a lot of stuff we didn't have time to discuss: things like sending paper postcards via the Web, finding really good quick attractions on the road. We're going to be posting those on the newly designed All Tech Considered blog at

NORRIS: Newly designed. Be sure to check it out.

GALLAGA: Relaunched.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: All right. Thank you, Omar.

GALLAGA: Thanks for having me.

NORRIS: That's Omar Gallaga. He covers technology culture for the Austin American-Statesman.

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