Apple Passbook and its potential impact on the travel industry

NB: This is a guest article by Garry Kelly, lead engineer at SITA Lab.

Last week, Apple announced Passbook, a new default app coming to iOS 6 for iPhone later this year which stands to get a lot of attention in our industry.

This is in part because it is Apple, in part because of the pending iTravel patent, but also because Apple is taking a lot of the pain out of how people access electronic boarding passes, cards and coupons.

Our team at SITA Lab has a live demo integrated into our Boarding Pass API and I have some observations I can share.

What is it?

The Passbook app is digital storage for your existing boarding pass (or event tickets, or loyalty cards). The concept is not new, but the execution has all the hallmarks you would expect from Apple.

Simply put, it is just another way for passengers to get their boarding passes onto the iPhone – but the boarding pass shows up in Apple’s own app (not the airline’s app).

It has several features that make it easy for the passenger to use. For starters, it is easy to add a boarding pass – it is another delivery option, similar to email or SMS.

When checking in you simply choose email or Passbook. Once on the phone, the boarding pass can be triggered by your location and time – so it will pop up when you are at the airport before departure.

This means it is out of the way when you don’t need it and is easy to find when you do.

Why is Apple doing this?

As most Apple observers would agree, Apple is a control freak and the Apple product experience is what differentiates it from all others.

Looking at Passbook on my iPhone, I can see clearly that it reduces issues that cause problems for passengers, such as fumbling to retrieve their barcode at security or the gate.

In addition to knowing you are at the airport, it also allows airlines to provide update notifications of gate changes or departure delays.

Showing the pass at the right time right from the unlock screen is a nice touch – this will be a confidence builder for many.

Without a doubt, Apple’s innovation will drive adoption of barcode ticketing of all kinds. It will be habit forming which is part of what is currently lacking in 2D barcode pass adoption at airports.

On the road to iTravel or iWallet?

Many insiders speculate that Passbook is a Trojan Horse way for Apple to become our iTravel overlord per its (now famous) patent filing.

Some worry that iTravel will compete with airlines’ existing apps and Apple will wedge itself between the passenger and the airline.

Aside from being an elegant solution that differentiates iPhone from its competitors, I think it is more immediately Apple’s first step towards iWallet – potentially a much more valuable product for the company.

Reading patent trail tea leaves, earlier this month Apple was granted yet another in a series of patents relating to iWallet, Apple’s version of near-field communication (NFC).

These suggest Apple will attempt to go it its way with NFC and forge a direct automated connection between consumers, merchants and possibly card companies, enabling Apple to convert its popular iPhone into a mobile transaction machine.

Clearly, Passbook and its supporting PassKit SDK establish this direct connection. Airlines’ own boarding pass content is packaged so it can be easily included in Passbook without a middleman. Passbook is just a smart display.

Fortunately, Apple is not charging for the service.

Impressively, Passbook will support iPhones all the way back to iPhone 3s. Given that Apple has shipped 365 million iOS devices, Passbook will immediately dwarf the devices that support NFC right at its infancy.

Building a sizable base of users essentially going through the same motions with a barcode instead of NFC is a genius way to build audience while Apple patents up for an eventual iWallet NFC alternative of its own.

What does all this mean?

For those on the fence about adopting mobile boarding passes, I think critical mass has finally arrived because with mobile boarding pass solutions you can have it all, not just the Apple way.

At the end of the day, Apple launching Passbook is a very good development for our industry. NFC is going to happen and it is clearer now there will be several competing versions – with Apple iWallet eventually being one of them.

[Read my colleague Kevin O’Sullivan’s previous article about NFC and the travel industry]

Passbook is great for iPhone users but the halo effect will increase awareness and adoption of fast travel experiences we all want for our industry.

Whether or not there are unintended consequences for playing along I can’t say. It does not feel sinister.

Making boarding passes easy to use on iPhones so Apple can offer a great user experience, is likely the most it will get from our industry from this development and we should embrace this innovation.

Following comments below, here is the boarding pass in IATA standard BCBP format.


NB: This is a guest article by Garry Kelly, lead engineer at SITA Lab.

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A founding principle of tnooz was a diversity of viewpoints from across the spectrum. Viewpoints are articles by guest contributors from around the travel and hospitality industries. The views expressed are those of the author. and do not necessarily reflect those of the author's employer, or tnooz and its partners.



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  2. Wendy

    Passbook will definitely revolutionize transactions in the travel industry. Check out this video on’s lead developer trying to Passbook at the airport. It’ll take time for everyone to hop on the bandwagon but once they do, Passbook will be big.

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  5. murray harrold

    I don’t actually have an i-anything. Now, what you want me to do is to take this app and go start my round the world trip. Relying on simply my ‘phone (assuming it does not get nicked, of course) – Oh! And relying on having excellent network access in all quarters of the globe and that the ruddy battery does not give out 3 minutes before boarding…. hmmmmm….

    And you are going to tell me that no-one is going to take the information about where I am and when and do nothing with it …. Ohhhh! Look! a pink pig has just flown by my window.

    Maybe I am a bit old fashioned, but if I am going away to the other side of the globe (or where ever) with airline X I want to make damned sure airline x knows where I am, directly – (and of course, vica versa) I want a bit of paper in my hot sweaty mit that says who I am and what I am entitled to get on. I am a long way from trusting that a bit of advanced technology may or may not work properly two minutes before getting on a 14 hour flight from place “A” , when the next flight is in two days time.

    People fumbling for boarding passes? Have you looked at a boarding queue lately? Everyone knows exactly where there boarding pass is. They have been holding it firmly in their hand or stuck in their top pocket, checking it regularly, every 10 seconds or so. (along with passport, money, soft fruit named communication device ….)

    This looks like a bit written for the USA by the USA. As per usual, American thinking is: “This would work for us, therefore this must work for the rest of the world” This thinking is, naturally, a load of complete hogwash.

    • Sceptical Corporate Traveller

      @murray – bit late to the discussion, but yours is by far the best comment. There are many reasons Passbook on an Apple only platform won’t make a significant impact – particularly outside the USA. Passbook is solving a problem that does not exist by starting from the twin assumptions that
      (a) people have a lot of these “tokens” at any given moment – MOST people ( ie size of market) don’t
      (b) having them all in one place is sufficiently more convenient than other arrangement – which, I suggest, it is not for a large number of people.
      Add to those the single platform limitation and you have an interesting sideshow, no more.

  6. Francis

    Innovation is always good. I just wish they don’t forget to also incorporate the Travel Agencies in this app as well. We are the experts in the industry with the end user “clients”direclty coming to us!
    Saludos from Curacao – CW

  7. Andre Van Kets

    And yes – now Apple knows where and when you travel, and like its nosy neighbour Google, will learn more and more about you.

  8. Raymond @ Man On The Lam

    Too bad it’s not Android. Apple gives me the heebie jeebies.

    • Paul Tomes

      Hi Raymond

      I agree. That’s why we are working hard to make ensure that content creators (developers/ marketing / business owners) can get Passbook content onto platforms other than the iPhone.

      Please let me know if you’d like me to keep you posted. Or check out (you can also download some example passes and see how push messages work etc..)


  9. Greg Solovyev

    This is great news also for all SoLoMo app makers, because it takes the friction out of mobile ticketing for events and attractions. The question is though whether the suppliers and distributors will be eager to jump onto yet another Apple bandwagon and whether Apple will screw them up by say, wanting to charge 30% of the ticket price for Passbook integration.

  10. Jack Loop

    @daniele United is doing this and it is the airline show cases last week at the Apple Worldwide developer conference.

    United or any airline still retains the relationship. The Passkit SDK provides for a direct link to the issuer. For airlines this is the lot check-in app.

    The correct metaphor is a physical leather wallet. In this case Apple is the wallet. If I put cards or bills in the wallet, those are mine.

    This happening. This is the single biggest event toward making fast travel actually happen.

  11. Mark Lenahan

    I’m with Garry that the check-in piece is about convenience not a customer grab. Though you have to think about what else Apple could offer at this point (lounge access, meals?)

    If I was an airline I’d be a little bit more concerned about iWallet and the presence of loyalty programs / FFPs in their mockup (you can make out the Mileage Plus card in their screen shot).

    I think the play here is to own the payment channel and take payment commission.

    If a customer has multiple Loyalty cards (average US household has more than 16 according to some), and some of those cards are on the iPhone and some are not – the iPhone ones are going to get presented (and accumulation drives the revenue to the program). Likewise if some can be used for merchant redemption in mobile and some can not, the ones on mobile will be used more. Meaning loyalty programs on the mobile platform will both accumulate and redeem more – driving more cash through the program.

    Convenience has a potentially strong impact on FFP / loyalty collector behavior – imagine if the app knew you arrived in a hotel (could be gas station, grocery, any merchant) and could flash up the airline cards this hotel actually award points on – this is free benefit you might otherwise miss out on so very good for the consumer. This would be bad for the programs not on the platform of course. Potentially it is very good for Apple who will have a strong case to take a % given that the hotel is paying real money for the points.

  12. Joe Bühler

    @daniele by the time I get my boarding pass the airline already has a direct relationship with me. Getting it in Passbook doesn’t diminish that. It’s like getting it from TripIt but more convenient.

    For Apple it’s all about simplicity and Passbook is another manifestation of that credo.

    • Daniele Beccari

      If I don’t need the airline app anymore, the airline is losing the direct relationship with me during the trip.
      OK for user convenience, but as the airline I would want something in exchange.

      • Ernst

        You will have to book the flight first (on the airline app or on the site) to be able to get a boarding pass, So your relationship with the airline stays the same, it’s just a fancy folder with your boarding pass in it, instead of the piece of paper you carry to the airport.

  13. Daniele Beccari

    I know the power and appeal of Apple is irresistible, but…

    Someone please name 1 airline who would give up a direct relationship with their customer.

  14. Alaistair Deacon

    Pity this is NOT an IATA standard mobile boarding pass 🙁
    IATA spec is Aztec/QR/Datamatrix for mobile. PDF417 ONLY for paper….
    As I’ve pointed out – PDF417 is the worst format for mobile barcodes 🙁

    • Garry Kelly

      Hi, yes, correct the image above contains a PDF417 barcode!. 🙂 With Passbook, the issuer specifies the data to be encoded and the format, Apple take care of the barcode rendering…….. We typically use Aztec for mobile barcodes which Passbook also supports, but in sample shown above, PDF417 was specified as the format

      With our API, the airline administrator controls the branding and content… and can chose the encoding. I’ve posted some more details on the blog at


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