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Boarding pass evolution

In 100 years of commercial flight the humble boarding pass has evolved from the handwritten to the electronic. We look at its adoption and future.

On January 1st in 1914, the first scheduled commercial flight took off from the Municipal Pier in St. Petersburg, Florida.  It carried one paying passenger, former mayor Abe Pheil, who paid $400 at a charity auction for the privilege.

On January 1st in 2014, almost 100,000 commercial flights carried an estimated 8 million passengers to and from over 40,000 airports in the world on this day alone.  

A telling story

As passenger numbers have increased, technology has enabled great change. One of those changes, the boarding pass, is a telling story of IT evolution in aviation.

From being a handwritten paper tag, it’s now a key part of ensuring passengers’ safe progress through the airport and onto their final destination. See ‘From handwritten to online – boarding pass history’.

Today's mix

Today, there’s a mix of airport printed passes, passenger printed passes and mobile passes.

Airlines face more expense with airport printed boarding passes because they require airport staff and space. However, there will always be passengers who will need personal attention.

Passenger printed paper boarding passes are low tech, simple, proven, reliable and work well with all existing airport processes: marking/stamping a pass, for example, or adding a sticker as a passenger progresses through the airport.  

Passengers printing their own pass reduce airline/airport costs; they save passengers time and stress and they can check in early and reserve their seat. Adding home printed bag tags to web check-in will increase convenience for passengers and further reduce costs for airlines. 

As we see in the latest Passenger IT Trends Survey, with the growing consumer adoption of smartphones and tablets, the journey is evolving. That, coupled with declining sales of home printers, means that this hitherto successful check-in model will evolve once more. 

The next big thing

Mobile is revolutionizing many industries, combined as it is with the impact on passengers during their travels of Facebook and Google (see ‘The social journey’).

While we’re seeing encouraging growth in mobile bookings, mobile check-in has yet to grow as quickly as some of the more optimistic early predictions.

Mobile boarding passes are a boon for savvy frequent travelers who can check-in and collect their boarding pass on the move, all without access to a printer. 

And, if there’s no luggage to check in, they can go direct to the boarding gate, saving time for themselves as well as saving costs for the airline. 


With the growing number of digital wallets being unveiled in the marketplace, from providers such as Apple Passbook and Samsung Wallet, airlines developing mobile strategies can provide extra convenience for passengers, such as real-time notifications of gate changes or flight reschedules to update on passes in the wallet. (See ‘The tech-savvy traveler’.)

Economic benefits

While the advent of online check-in and self-printing of boarding passes made huge savings for the industry, can mobile deliver the same economic benefits as its predecessor, the home printed pass? 

Mobile usage has grown in the last three years, but it’s been slower than many predicted, according to the 2014 Airline IT Trends Survey. 

Yet the survey cites a strong focus on improving usability of mobile apps (95% of airlines). The forecast is, that by 2017, the mobile channel is expected to contribute nearly five times as much ancillary sales as web and kiosk, representing 11.6% of total ancillary sales. 

In addition to enhancing passenger convenience and providing another revenue channel, mobile also has the potential to minimize delays throughout the airport. In cooperation with customers, SITA Lab is pioneering with iBeacon and mobile technology to dynamically generate time to board, walk time to gates and passenger location data. (See ‘Mobile evolution’.)

NFC rises

The next generation of mobile boarding technology, NFC (Near Field Communications), is already a reality. SITA is working on trials with passengers to provide a more convenient way to pass through gates, in addition to 2D bar code passes.

One such trial, in 2014, saw Air France passengers in Toulouse experience a seamless journey with NFC-based smartphones. Air France, Orange, SITA, Toulouse-Blagnac Airport and RESA joined forces to provide the first seamless boarding experience in Europe with NFC technology.

NFC technology was already present in almost every new smartphone, but without Apple, NFC could not take off. Thanks to Apple finally embracing it (making it available on iPhone 6, 6 Plus and Apple Watch) NFC will now emerge as the technology of choice.


With NFC, the boarding pass is stored securely on the mobile phone. Instead of the pass being optically scanned, it’s read wirelessly when the phone is tapped against the scanner.

This is a game-changer. No more searching for your bar code in the phone. The phone will show to the reader the right boarding pass, even if it’s holding several future and old boarding passes in its digital wallet. Tap your phone on the reader, and that’s it.

SITA has led the industry, having already built (in 2011) an NFC experience room in its offices in Geneva and inviting hundreds of industry executives to experience the benefit of this technology.

SITA has developed an industry specification that would allow NFC to work in an interoperable way, while allowing scalable roll out and being compatible with existing common use infrastructure.

Auto check-in

The next big thing is auto check-in, where the boarding pass is issued automatically to the passenger, based on preference or seat selection at the time of booking.

Auto check-in creates the need for airlines to have a secure way to distribute boarding passes to the passenger, whatever the passenger wants to use to travel – whether a mobile boarding pass in a mobile wallet, in an SMS-link, a mobile-ready email  or  home printed.

Through its boarding pass API, SITA already provides a universal distribution mechanism ready to support auto-check-in.

Some industry observers are also predicting the emergence of a single travel token, possibly based on biometrics. Such solutions will need to provide proven business benefits and protect privacy while also interoperating with existing equipment and processes in order to enjoy widespread adoption.

Find out more

SITA's Mobile Boarding Pass API

JetBlue is just one of many airlines who've embraced SITA's Boarding Pass API.

From handwritten to online - Boarding pass history

Boarding passes were once issued by hand at the airport check-in desk. Inventory and seat allocation were handled manually, being either handwritten or accomplished using stickers to ensure that once passengers had a seat it wasn’t possible to give it to someone else.

Migration to electronic ticketing was completed in 2008. By 2010, 2D bar-coded boarding passes (BCBP) had replaced the previous generation of more expensive and less efficient magnetic stripe boarding passes. That meant passengers could check-in online and print their boarding pass at home.


As magnetic strips required expensive ATB (Automated Ticket and Boarding Pass) printers and were printed using a special type of expensive paper, this transition to home check-in provided a significant cost saving for the airline. 

Home computing was booming and boarding passes were easily printed on simple home printers. Changing from magnetic strip to encoded boarding passes took many years and millions of dollars investment.


But this was offset against the enormous savings being made by the airlines with reduced airport check-in costs due to passenger self-service check-in and reduced passenger processing costs.  IATA projected at the time that the transition would save the industry up to $1.5 billion every year.

However, accepting passenger printed boarding passes introduced new security risks, which combined with increasing security requirements, demanded new approaches to verify boarding pass authenticity within the airport.

Barcode technology

The machine readable component of a barcoded boarding pass conforms to IATA Resolution 792.  This is an extensible standard and mandatory information contains the details for the flight including passenger name, PNR, date of travel, airline, flight number, origin airport, destination airport and class of travel.

As this information is standard, it can be read and understood, not just by the issuing airline, but by third party scanners and applications at key points in the passengers’ journey, for example, at security checkpoints. 

This supports ‘through check-in’, where a passenger may be checked in on the follow-on leg of their journey even if with a different airline. 

The format also allows for extra information to be appended to the barcode data stream enabling airlines to adapt their business processes to add additional services such as frequent flyer or trusted traveler programs.

Trusted traveler programs

So with the bar-coded boarding pass standard being extensible, it can accommodate extra optional information. One example is for pre-clearance programs which allow trusted or pre-screened passengers to enjoy fast tracking to the boarding gate if they’ve enrolled in one of the programs. 

Such programs depend on the boarding pass being secure and not being open to modification. As the airport is a shared facility, these programs are not specific to the airline and checks must be made by security staff at other points in the airport.

There are two main approaches to tackling this requirement. The first is where the scanners have access to backend systems to validate that the pass being presented has been issued by the airline. 

A second approach is where the airline issuing the pass to add a digital signature to the boarding pass data. Scanners then compare the pass against the signature to ensure the data has not being modified.  These extra security procedures are used by the TSA Pre✓™ program which is available in the US.

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