Apple’s PassBook is poised to change the way airlines and passengers interact

n.b. – This story first appeared in the APEX Editor’s Blog on 2 October 2012

Apple likes to make a splash when it moves into a new industry. The company’s most recent foray into the travel space is no exception; its PassBook application will change the way airlines and passengers interact, mostly for the better.

Apple describes PassBook as the solution to membership cards, loyalty cards, coupons and tickets, a digital wallet without the ability to actually conduct new transactions.

For airlines the initial use of PassBook is boarding passes. The functionality exposed by PassBook is not revolutionary. Several carriers have already developed iPhone applications which offer up boarding passes in addition to other airline-specific tools. Still, the opportunities PassBook offers will change the landscape for the airlines and their customers.

There are two main areas in which the PassBook application differs from a traditional mobile boarding pass experience:

  • Automatic Updates – Flights are delayed. Gate assignments change. Seat assignments change. These are the types of events which passengers generally want to be notified of as quickly as possible. They are also events which airlines generally have trouble communicating to their customers. Thanks to the integrated push notification services in PassBook-enabled boarding passes these actions can be seamlessly and directly transmitted to passengers once they’ve checked in for a flight.
  • Proximity Alerts – Integration with the location-aware aspects of the iPhone allow PassBook-enabled boarding passes to “pop up” on screen at the right time. Passengers showing up at the airport will find their boarding pass ready to go on their phone screen rather than digging into a specific app to load it.

The interesting thing about these features is that neither is necessarily unique to PassBook. Integration with the on-board location awareness or push notification systems is available to all iOS developers. Some airlines have even integrated them into their apps in a limited manner. Where PassBook is significant is that it makes implementation much easier for all airlines. No need to build out a full iOS app; just build a PassBook-enabled delivery mechanism for the online check-in process and the boarding pass can be downloaded direct from a webpage or an email (Virgin Australia has email-integration already).

There is, however, one change which is specific to the PassBook application and one which will make things noticeably better for passengers. With PassBook an upcoming flight boarding pass is accessible directly on the lock screen, saving the trouble of logging in to the phone and navigating to a specific application.

For passengers, this improvement has shown quick returns in terms of a more pleasant airport experiences. Ross Gale, an industrial private equity consultant, seems to always be at the airport for work. The PassBook integration has already provided him a better pre-flight experience on several occasions. “Often when in line at security checkpoints I am either on the phone with someone or fiddling with the contents of my pockets for a more seamless security experience and find myself caught off guard when I am next in line. Being able to simply swipe my finger across the icon on the lock screen makes life much simpler.”

For the airlines which already had iOS applications adoption of PassBook has been quick. United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, Lufthansa and Virgin Australia all deployed integration in the initial weeks of availability. Other carriers have hinted that support is coming soon. Like many technologies, the more it is in use the more other carriers will be pressured into supporting it. And the ease of deployment should further speed adoption.

While airlines are currently focused on the boarding pass there are other areas where PassBook can add value to the customer experience. In 2011 the average US household was enrolled in more than 18 loyalty programs and active in more than 8 according to Loyalty Market researchers Colloquy. That’s a lot of information to keep track of. A number of companies have tried to address the situation. These aggregators update account balances regularly and notify customers of changes. The most successful have run into trouble as the largest programs shun them, demanding that the aggregator licenses the data rather than access it for free.

Airlines implementing a PassBook-based membership card can allow Apple to be the aggregator but still control the update frequency and level of sharing through the push notification system. Customers still get the benefit of alerts to account changes and the programs get to control access to the data and the frequency of updates. This is just one of many potential ways airlines can help passengers manage their frequent flyer accounts while still maintaining control of those interactions. American Express has already implemented a similar account tracking option for their credit card customers; extending it to airlines is not a huge technology leap.

The opportunities presented by PassBook are not radical. Still, the interface it presents will improve the passenger experience and the simplified programming and deployment process will ease airline adoption. That’s a win for everyone flying.

(The video below shows you how to use the SITA Mobile Boarding Pass API to distribute boarding passes to Apple Passbook.)

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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.