When new software is introduced, such as whiz-bang applications for mobile devices, technology reviewers tend to focus whether it is the latest, greatest, or coolest thing to hit the market. Less often do you see reviewers take a step back and ask the forest-for-the-trees question, i.e., Do we even need this technology? What's driving it? Is it fixing something that is not broken? The big one for me is, Is it going to be more trouble than it is worth?
That's the question I find myself asking about the new mobile boarding pass software. In fact, Chicago Tribune's Josh Noel recently did a story on mobile passes that points out the teething problems of the new technology. What the article doesn't address, however, is the "why" of mobile boarding passes.
I think it's a valid question. Kiosk-printed boarding passes work. They've eliminated the need to print and send tickets through the mail; they are simple, efficient, and reliable. So what advantage are we gaining by replacing a simple piece of paper with a complex, delicate gadget?
After all, the nature of electronic gizmos is that they don't always work.
Also, how many times have you let your cellphone battery run down?
Or dropped your cell?
Or mislaid it?
This then brings me to the basic question, What does the consumer gain by having the boarding pass on the mobile device? What does the airline gain? I am certain that someone must have identified a benefit apart from the tiny added convenience of not having to make a five-minute stop at a ticket kiosk to print out a paper pass. I suppose it would be pointed out to me that if it's a busy time at the airport, the traveler is eliminating not just a visit to a kiosk, but an irritating wait in line to use the kiosk.
For me, the bigger issue is this: Will the time saved by eliminating kiosk visits be offset by time lost when mobile problems occur in the line of antsy passengers waiting to board the plane?
In fact, I have already seen this occur. A traveler presenting his cell at the gate had the electronic boarding pass on the mobile screen, all properly displayed; but for some unknown reason an electronic glitch prevented the scanner from reading the screen. Suffice it to say, this traveler was not happy. He had to be pulled from line and another gate attendant had to be called over to troubleshoot the problem. Now, multiply that times a factor of five or 10 or more as more mobile passes get into travelers' hands, and you can imagine the logistical difficulties for the airline and the impact on travelers.
Still, I am betting that the technology will mature and we will get over the technological bumps. I am also guessing that having the boarding pass on a mobile device will enable the airlines to do more than just eliminate a kiosk visit. For example, will having your boarding pass on your cell lead to real-time messaging from the airline that will update your flight information to reflect changes as they occur? Or could it give you a highly convenient way to add services to your existing ticket should you decide to make a different seat selection or onboard meal choice?
The benefits from having your pass on your cell are not yet fully apparent because the process is evolving. It is becoming more efficient, beneficial, and not as device-reliant. Different technologies, such as near-field communication (NFC), are being tested. These represent a much-needed team effort among the airlines and mobile service providers.
The ultimate intent of the mobile boarding pass is that with one quick swipe of the mobile device, a traveler could be cleared through security, checked in at the gate, informed of any itinerary changes, and more. This kind of capability is perfect for road warriors or, indeed, any travelers who gravitate to geeky stuff because it holds the promise of saving time and improving comfort and productivity.
By itself, having a pass on a smartphone is no big deal. That's because it is just a first step. The carriers and their partners are undoubtedly working behind the scenes on features that will flow from this new capability.
Airline Futurist • Miami • www.us.amadeus.com