TSA Greenlights Paperless Boarding Passes

The Transportation Security Administration and Continental Airlines announced Tuesday that they will launch a pilot program for paperless boarding passes.

Passengers will now be allowed to receive boarding passes electronically on their cell phones or PDAs, which will then be scanned by TSA security officers at the checkpoint, eliminating the need for a paper boarding pass, according to a press release put out by the airline and the TSA.

Continental becomes the first U.S. carrier to test paperless boarding passes.

Domestic travelers in Germany and Spain have been using the paperless boarding passes and Japan Airlines has been checking in and boarding passengers by scanning their mobile phones for nearly three years. Airlines in Canada began using paperless boarding passes over the summer.

The barcode that passengers will receive on their mobile devices is different from the familiar vertical bars that are used to encode information on groceries and other products. Because the image needs to communicate much more information to the airlines' scanning devices, paperless boarding passes use a more complex pattern of squares, called "2D" barcode technology, according to the press release.

Passengers will receive a text message with the barcode or instructions to download it; the barcode then becomes the passengers' boarding pass. TSA travel document checkers will use handheld scanners to validate the authenticity of the paperless boarding pass directly off of the electronic device.

"The deployment of the paperless technology signifies the TSA's ongoing commitment to develop and execute new technologies within aviation while enhancing security," said Mel Carraway, TSA general manager for field operations, Office of Security Operations. "We are thrilled to be able to partner with Continental Airlines to launch this new technology and we look forward to our continued partnership in the utilization of this new state-of-the-art application."

TSA created the concept of how to scan the paperless boarding passes and Continental Airlines developed an implementation plan to encrypt the paperless boarding pass to ensure authenticity. "We are pleased to take part in this pioneering concept that provides enhanced security and customer service to our passengers," said Mark Bergsrud, Continental Airlines senior vice president, Marketing Programs and Distribution.

The International Air Transport Association, a trade group for the worlds' airlines, agreed on a global standard for the bar coding of passenger boarding passes in October. U.S. carriers signed off on the standard at the time, but the plan still required authorization by the Transportation Security Administration. This joint effort between Continental Airlines and TSA is likely just a first step in an industry-wide transition to a paperless check-in process.

Steve Lott, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association in Washington, said that the electronic bar codes are part of a larger effort to make the industry more efficient. The Association is hopeful that the process will save more than $500 million annually when fully implemented.