Airlines: Welcome to the Digital Age!
Despite the incredibly complicated new technology being invented in our age, the airplane still remains one of the most impressive inventions. What is more dumbfounding than a 100,000 pounds of metal launching into the air and then moving as fast as the speed of sound to land in another country in less than a day? The machines behind the entire process of air travel are fantastic, so why is the process to board airplanes so mundane?
Well, maybe it doesn’t have to be. Last week, a Canadian man claimed that he was able to enter the United States with a copy of his passport on his iPad. The article said that after security carefully inspected the digital document, Martin Reisch was ushered through border control.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection later denounced the story as false. They clarified that “scanned images” are not an adequate form of identification. Security gave Reisch leave to enter the U.S. because he also presented his driver’s license and birth certificate.
However, this incident has clearly planted an idea in the minds of technology innovators. What if identification were digital? Today, 35% of adults in the U.S. own a smartphone and most of them are rarely seen without them, especially while traveling. The next time you walk through an airport, or are waiting at a gate, count the number of people around you with their faces buried in their iPhones or blackberries. You will surely count a multitude of people, whether you find that discovery surprising or not. Imagine if all you had to do to confirm your identity, whether to airport security or a police officer, is whip out your phone and show an image or a barcode.
Though we haven’t yet reached the age of digital ID, airlines are already taking advances to make checking-in and boarding easier and more reliant on technology. In 1995 Continental Airlines unveiled kiosks: the little machines with touch screens where people can check-in and receive their boarding passes without assistance. Kiosks are now old news, as is the online check-in initiated by Alaska Airlines in 1999. 80 percent of travelers use these options.
The new technological trend for check-in is electronic boarding passes, eboarding. Though it has been five years since Continental began experimenting with this technology, today it is still not widely used, partly because not many people have heard of it.
I used my first eboarding ticket over the summer, on a flight to Chicago, and found that it made the whole process of check-in much easier. An eboarding pass is simply your plane ticket sent to you via email or text (an option you must chose either when booking your flight or using an airline application already downloaded to your phone). You can then open the ticket on your phone and present it to airport staff for scanning.
The ticket consists of your flight’s information and an image of a bar code. However, it is not a typical barcode. I was confused, afraid my phone was malfunctioning, when I opened the email to find an image of what looked like the snow that appears on a television that has lost its signal. Apparently, the barcodes of eboarding passes are 2D as opposed to 1D. 1D barcodes are what most people expect to see, a series of vertical lines varying in width. Eboarding passes use 2D barcodes because they are easier to send via the web. As an added bonus, 2D barcodes offer greater protection than their 1D counterparts because they are encrypted and much tougher to copy.
Another proof of eboarding passes’ superiority to regular paper tickets is that, with eboarding, you simply present your phone and ID to security and the gate attendant to be admitted to your flight. No more messing around with paper tickets that transform into wrinkled balls or fly away from you and get lost. Also, no more standing in absurdly long check-in lines to get your ticket. You already have it! Of course if you have baggage that needs to be checked, that’s a different story. Finally, the icing on the cake for all those environmentalists out there, eboarding passes are eco-friendly!
While eboarding passes have many advantages, the technology is still developing and the tickets sometimes pose quite a few problems. For one, if your phone’s battery dies, you are essentially screwed. At least in the sense that you have to then check-in regularly, which will further delay your trip. Also, sometimes the scanners have trouble reading the passes or the officers and attendants get flustered and annoyed with the unfamiliar technology. However, the biggest drawback is that for parties of more than one person, the eboarding pass is not very efficient. Unless, each person has the boarding pass handy on their separate phones, it wastes time to handle multiple passes on one device.
Luckily, technology is ever changing and improving. The time will come when only machines run check-in or when airplanes become obsolete in light of even faster modes of transportation. However, for now let us look hopefully to a future of digital IDs and digital ticketing and take advantage of the new technology as it emerges.