Cell phone as boarding pass

Continental is testing a new system that allows passengers to have a boarding pass sent directly to their cell phone, eliminating the need for a printed version.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read

In the future, air travelers across the country will be able to get their boarding passes sent to their cell phones.

Continental is testing a new system that allows people checking in via their cell phone to get their boarding pass sent directly to their phones. The electronic boarding pass, which has an encrypted two-dimensional bar code, can be used instead of a paper boarding pass to get through airport security and to board planes, according to a story published Tuesday in The New York Times.

Several U.S. airlines, including American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, Southwest, and Alaska, have already been allowing people to check-in for flights via their cell phones. But they still have to print out the tickets at a kiosk at the airport or a computer printer before they arrive at the airport. Continental is the first airline in the U.S. to test the new electronic passes.

Cell phone check-in and electronic boarding passes sound like a great idea to me. Whenever I travel, I try to check in online and print my boarding pass from home to avoid lines at the airport. But getting to a computer with a printer isn't always convenient. And more often than not, I find myself running late. I can't tell you how many times I've broken into a cold sweat sitting in the back seat of a taxi trying to get through the Midtown tunnel at rush hour to make my flight out of JFK. Checking in via cell phone and not worrying about printing my boarding pass would ease a lot of my last-minute travel anxieties.

Apparently, I'm not the only one who thinks mobile check-in and digital boarding passes are a good idea. According to Henry H. Harteveldt, a vice president with Forrester Research, about 47 percent of frequent travelers are interested in using their phones for flight check-in, he told The New York Times. And about 42 percent said they'd be interested in using their mobile phone as a boarding pass.

The Transportation Security Administration, the federal agency that oversees security for airports, likes the electronic boarding passes too, because the two-dimensional bar codes are harder to forge than the one-dimensional bar codes that are used today on many tickets printed online.

The TSA has been working with Continental since December to test the new electronic boarding pass, the Times said. Continental is only using the new boarding pass technology on nonstop domestic flights out of its hub in Houston. But the airline will likely expand the service to other airports later this spring.

Harteveldt told the Times that a mobile check-in system also has other benefits. For example, airlines can communicate directly with passengers about on-board services, provide information about baggage pickup, allow passengers to upgrade or change seating, check standby status, and help rebook canceled or delayed flights directly from their cell phones.

All this sounds terrific for a busy traveler such as myself. But for all these services to work as advertised, indoor cell phone coverage will have to be beefed up in many airports. It also wouldn't hurt if airports added more power outlets. The worst thing that could happen is for my boarding pass to disappear before I can get on my flight because the battery on my cell phone died.