Your iPhone is taking over your travel life

Is there any doubt remaining that Apple wants total control over the way you integrate your life with their devices? If you think the answer is yes, perhaps now is a good time to start looking into the details of PassBook, a key feature of iOS6 and part of the expected iPhone 5 release this week. PassBook is a digital wallet for all sorts of things, including event tickets, loyalty programs and airline boarding passes. This last bit seems to be rather significant, with Apple poised to best pretty much every airline-specific mobile app available today. And they’ll do it for many airlines all at once.


So what makes PassBook boarding passes special? Mostly the tight integration with other iPhone functions. If the GPS detects you arriving at an airport it can pop up the current boarding pass without user interaction. Flight changed to a different terminal? Expect an alert that you’re sitting in the wrong place. Departure time approaching? The boarding pass will pop up again; perhaps it is time to close out that bar tab and head to the gate.

Of course, these features aren’t worth much if the airlines don’t play along. And many of them have invested heavily in building up their own, dedicated apps to handle mobile boarding passes and more. Will they cede control of this functionality to Apple? It seems the answer is a resounding yes.

American Airlines announced they will support the platform, arguably the most significant buy-in given their previous policies on not allowing 3rd parties access to passenger information.United Airlines has also signed on to support PassBook and there are strong indications that Delta will be supporting it as well. Leading the pack (likely by accident) is Virgin Australia.


A passenger flying the carrier last week happened to be running a beta version of iOS6 and when checking in for his flight was prompted to store the data in PassBook. It worked just fine for him, from check-in through boarding. Following that disclosure Virgin Australia confirmed that they will be supporting the platform. It seems likely that other carriers will quickly follow suit.

Yes, many airlines have dedicated apps and some of them are pretty good. But for the core functionality – mobile boarding passes – it seems that they are all about to be pushed aside by the 800-pound gorilla in the room. If the Apple version weren’t so much better than the others there might be more objections to this encroachment; as it is most folks seem quite excited by the move.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


    1. @Scottrick: It will be supported down to the 3gs as I understand it but no promises.

      @Julian: I don’t have an iPhone, actually. Long story, but the short version is that I still have flat-rate unlimited international data from VZW so long as I keep my existing plan and that’s far too valuable to give up just yet given my travel habits.

      @GA: I don’t think the tipping point is going to be regional at all. Any airline which doesn’t support the platform is going to be at a disadvantage.

      It will be interesting to see if other platforms can piggy back on the file type specification the same way ICS and VCF files started off somewhat proprietary and quickly became functional across other platforms. I don’t see any reason they wouldn’t. So Apple may get to dictate the file format and what data is included in it but I’d be surprised if there isn’t an Android or WinMo app out there soon which can at least display the content, if not handle some of the other features.

  1. What airline(s) is/are the tipping point such that it is a competitive disadvantage do not be involved?

    For the US, UA is my guess. LH (group) in EU and either CX or SQ in Asia.

  2. @GA – I’d also guess also UA – and/or DL.
    WN and US may come up to speed sometime next decade.

  3. @Scottrick: PassBook is a function of iOS 6, so once you’ve upgraded your iPhone software you will have it. New iPhone is being announced tomorrow, and rumor is it will be available starting Sept 21st. So most likely that will be the same date that you can update your iPhone software as well.

  4. @Seth: Have you actually calculated how much data you use? I find the new $25/100 MB very useful, sometimes even cheaper than the $65 unlimited plan, especially if you prorate it. And I’m a somewhat heavy user. And if I ever need to do even heavier data downloads, and video calls, buying a local sim and swapping it is extremely easy and cheap. And the local sim usually gives you the option for a free mobile hotspot (tethering) in almost any other country in the world, except US.

    1. Yeah, I know how much data I use. Some trips are better than others but there are many where it simply isn’t pretty. At $65/month for the unlimited global data plan it really is hard to beat the rate I’m on right now.

      Beyond that, it is my work phone and I run my own business so not having that phone number active while I’m on the road isn’t really an option. I know I could do things with call forwarding and such to the local SIM but, in the end, the hassle and costs generally make it more work than it is worth. For longer trips I will carry a second phone and grab a local SIM in country but I use that only for voice/SMS dealing with guides and such while there.

  5. Passbook passes don’t necessarily go through apple. I’ve only put together basic ones, but it is all in a file that the user downloads (be it through app, email, or web) and adds to passbook. As far as I know, that data is never transmitted to apple. And award wallet and passbook are in completely different realms of passenger data sharing.

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