Raising the Bar

31 August 2008 (Last Updated August 31st, 2008 18:30)

The boarding pass is a critical element of check-in for busy passengers, airports and carriers alike. IATA's Eric Léopold heads a project that has taken the process to a new level.

Raising the Bar

Checking in has changed dramatically in a short time. IATA's (International Air Transport Association) barcoded boarding pass (BCBP) project is key to this global development. Airlines were fast to pick up the BCBP standard published in June 2005 and, less than three years after publication, more than 110 airlines comply with the standard. A target of 200 airlines is set for the end of 2008. For mobile BCBP a target has yet to be decided but recent articles published in the International Herald Tribune, USA Today and the New York Times show great expectations from customers.

In terms of cost savings, IATA estimates that the BCBP will save the industry more than $500m a year on web and mobile check-in infrastructure, and on equipment in the case of 100% BCBP use. Applying a 100% BCBP system also facilitates through check-in, as all airlines use the same data format and have no need to re-issue boarding passes for connecting passengers.

Airlines and airports are well aligned in their vision as they share the benefits of a 100% BCBP industry. By the end of 2007, more than 150 airports surveyed by IATA provided check-in and boarding equipment supporting BCBP. In 2008, key equipment vendors have confirmed to IATA that they are selling only equipment that supports BCBP. This is a guarantee for all the investments made that 100% BCBP is completely on track.

Cost effective

Barcode technology represents a significant cost saving for airports and airlines, largely because of the maintenance cost of magnetic stripe equipment. When the equipment becomes obsolete and must be renewed, the incentive to move to barcode-only equipment is high, as all airlines will be BCBP capable by the end of 2008 and the capital cost is at least half the price of replacing magnetic stripe equipment.

Service level agreements with barcode equipment are also improved as it has fewer moving parts and therefore fails less often. BCBP is also an opportunity for non-automated airports that did not want to invest in expensive magnetic stripe technology to reap the benefits of automation, such as better on-time departure rates.

The move to self service is gaining popularity in many aspects of our daily lives and what was once a specialist option for business-class airline passengers now extends to all travellers. People increasingly want to avoid wasting time on mundane tasks. But BCBP affects more than check-in and boarding. At Haneda, or Tokyo International Airport, All Nippon Airways (ANA) passengers have their 2D bar codes scanned before entering the bag-drop area, security screening or lounge, so that the airline is notified of the passenger's arrival.

The introduction of remote check-in via the internet and mobile phones increased the number of passengers checked in for the flight who do not show up at the gate on time.

"The move to self service is gaining popularity in many aspects of our daily lives."

In order to reduce or better manage no-shows, ANA is notified of the passenger's arrival or absence and can manage the waiting list to maximise flight load factors.

In order to facilitate implementation of BCBP at airports and especially to coordinate roll-out plans with airlines, IATA launched a dedicated website in February 2008. The BCBP Matchmaker links airlines and airports that are ready and willing to implement BCBP. It automates the collection of information and, based on an address book of more than 200 airline and 2,000 airport head office contacts, facilitates the exchange of information between the right people. The initiative is supported by the key equipment vendors.

How times have changed

Since the mid-nineties airlines have offered self service in the form of kiosk check-in at airports, as a way to avoid long queues and the manual ritual of check-in – having a seat allocated by the agent, documents checked, and bags weighed and accepted before that all-important boarding pass was issued. The process had remained ostensibly the same since the dawn of commercial aviation.

A degree of automation enabled the agent to perform these tasks more efficiently but even these improvements had little impact on the traveller in terms of waiting and processing times, particularly in the eighties and nineties when passenger numbers began to soar.

With the advent of kiosks, all passengers, irrespective of travel class or ticket price, enjoy time savings at the airport. The emergence of e-ticketing (ET) offers even more convenience to the passenger by removing the need to visit the travel agent to collect the ticket. Now all that is needed is a ticket number. When linked to the credit or debit card used for purchase, or the frequent flyer programme card, the passenger can control even more of their journey.

ET drives airline efficiency while elevating passenger service. With ET, airlines can make direct sales through the internet and offer better prices to the customer by lowering distribution costs. Passenger fares have dropped by 24% in real terms in the past ten years. Many traditional travel agents are following the trend by offering sales through their websites and thus reducing the need for high street shops.

"With the advent of kiosks, all passengers, irrespective of travel class or ticket price, enjoy time savings at the airport."

Net gains

The ET revolution has enabled another avenue of self-service for the passenger – internet check-in. Now passengers can confirm a flight, select their seat and print a boarding card in the comfort of their home or office. An increasing number of airlines are enriching the home check-in service by registering special-needs requirements, passport details and pre-register baggage to be checked in at the airport.

At Haneda, 70% of ANA passengers now check in on the web – printing a boarding pass themselves – or via their mobile phone, downloading a barcode to the handset. Only 20% still show up at the airport to collect a boarding pass at the kiosk and 10% queue at a check-in desk. This has changed dramatically in five years; in 2005, 65% of passengers used a kiosk and 35% the check-in desk. Since September 2007, magnetic stripes are no longer used on boarding passes, as all formats contain a 2D barcode.

Check-in was once a long process at a desk in the airport, the outcome of which was a boarding pass. The vision of airlines for BCBP was first to enable a valid boarding pass to be issued outside the airport (in the form of home-printed and mobile BCBP), and secondly to agree on common data, so that the BCBP becomes a unique key to airport services, such as bag-drop, lounge, fast-track and kiosk services. BCBP enables a greater choice for passengers while making the process simple for airlines.