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Airline checks out cell phone check-ins

Send a text message, get a virtual boarding pass. Qantas is testing the bar-code-based system on some Australian flights.

Australian airline Qantas Airways has quietly begun tests of a system to allow customers to check in for flights by sending text messages from their cell phone.

The trial, which will initially only be available to frequent flyers traveling from Sydney to Melbourne on flights before 10 am each day, will run until mid-September.

If successful, it is likely to be extended to other routes on Qantas' main CityFlyer network in 2005.

To use the service, customers need to pre-register their phone and associate it with a specific frequent flyer number. Check-in is accomplished by sending a text message up to six hours before a booked flight. A virtual "boarding pass" that includes flight and seat allocation details is then sent to the phone, which must be shown to staff when boarding.

Passengers who are flying without baggage will be able to use the system without showing identification, while the luggage-laden masses will be able to deposit their bags at a counter dedicated to text-message check-ins after presenting suitable ID.

Because the system relies on bar codes, only phones that support graphical messages--a group that includes most recent models--can be used.

Last month, Qantas' low-cost subsidiary Jetstar outlined plans for customers to book flights using a text message service. No such plans have been unveiled for Qantas, but the airline is already heavily reliant on Internet bookings and offers other technology-enhanced check-in services, such as QuickCheck kiosks. Over the past two years, it has also relaxed requirements regarding the use of mobile phones on planes before departure, though their use in-flight remains banned.

Angus Kidman of ZDNet Australia reported from Sydney.