Ubiquitous yet innocuous the airline boarding pass is more identification than disposable souvenir and should be treated as such yet most travellers are unaware all this little piece of paper says about them so I thought it good to look at the technology of this aspect of travel and its evolution.

This rise of the magnetic stripe in the 1970’s to its fall in the new millennium is examined in this excellent article but the summary is that IBM developed the magnetic stripe, or mag-stripe for short, technology in the 70’s to aid both airlines and financial intuitions in processing more transactions faster while making banking and flying more user-friendly . Encoding vital bits of information to a small section of a special type of heavyweight paper printed in ATB (Automated Ticket and Boarding Pass) printers helped airlines speed boarding of the new, larger jets such as Boeing’s new 747 “jumbo” jet allowing the airline industry to rapidly expand.

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I still have a few of these vintage boarding passes floating around as keepsakes/bookmarks.

The mag-stripe boarding passes were the industry standard until 2010 when the International Air Transport Association (IATA), a trade association representing 250 airlines, announced in a press release it was moving with the technological times in adopting the newer and more user-friendly 2D bar coded boarding passes. The main advantages of barcoded boarding passes is that no special paper and printers were required at the airport and passengers could print their boarding passes from their home computer reducing the labour costs with check-in staffing. Barcodes remain in use along with QR (Quick Response) matrix barcodes on boarding passes with the latter becoming more popular because of their greater storage and QR code reading apps on mobile handheld devices such as smart phones and tablets.

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Among the information barcodes can store are a passenger’s full name, file number and frequent flyer information all of which could be enough for someone to gain access to this flight reservation and posing as you change or cancel it or try and log on to your online frequent flyer account to learn far more personal information such as address, date of birth and credit card numbers.

Is that security concern valid or more hysterical hype? While some such as Fusion blogger Kasmir Hill contend it isn’t and that most QR barcodes show nothing more than what’s actually printed on the face of a boarding pass even gaining a frequent flyer number is enough of a start for a determined stranger to guess at your security questions and gain online access to your account and use the information to commit identity theft.

There are some basic security precautions travellers can take with their frequent flyer accounts to make it harder for unwanted intruders to gain access such as not storing credit cards, home address and phone numbers in a profile and making passwords and security reminder questions as unique and therefore as difficult to guess as possible. These steps are likely to slow down our own access of frequent flyer websites however the small inconvenience is worth more robust security given the serious damage identity theft can cause.

All technology can be used in different ways and while today’s more advanced boarding passes allows  a more seamless type of travel that ease should come a degree of caution in treating this lowly piece of paper as something more than harmless souvenir to be shared online, tossed in the garbage or left in a seat pocket on an aircraft.