Airline Boarding Passes: Is Going Digital Always the Answer?

Category: UX
20 Nov 2016
Read time: 10 MIN
“There’s an app for that!” Apple proudly exclaimed back in 2009.

There were only 100,000 mobile apps then.  There are now over 2 million of them.  Data journalist Felix Richter said, “There's an app for every need, but there's no need for every app,” and he could have a point.

A huge number of mobile apps are built solely for entertaining us and they succeed to varying degrees.  Unfortunately the same is true for utility apps - the ones that are supposed to make our lives easier.  Mobile phones have made a huge difference to how we accomplish things but they’re not miracle workers.  Transferring troublesome tasks from a physical object to a smart device doesn’t instantly give us a smart solution unless we take time to identify what’s actually causing issues for users and address those points.  Indiscriminately creating apps for every problem is lazy design and, even worse, can end up introducing more complications to the interaction it’s supposed to improve.

We’ve seen this happen with car keys.  They’re fiddly things sometimes so Ford’s solution was to create a mobile app for unlocking your car.  Transferring the task to a phone meant you had to tap your phone up to 13 times before you could open your door.   The more effective solution was the one that kept the key but placed a button on it that unlocked the doors remotely.

I believe the same thing is happening with airline boarding passes.  It’s not always easy to pick out the information you want from the print-outs amongst all the mysterious codes plus they’re annoying to carry.  So now we have mobile boarding passes.  They’re more convenient, right? Well, not when they’re not supported by all airlines or airports and it’s up to you to check whether they’re accepted at your departure and connecting airports.  Also, not when you have to limit your phone use so that your battery doesn’t die before you’ve displayed your pass at every required point.  And definitely not when technical issues stop you accessing your pass at all (as happened to Ryanair customers).

But showing a mobile boarding pass is faster though, isn’t it? Well, from activating your phone to displaying the pass could take anything up to 10 taps plus a few swipes and that’s just for one! Add a few more swipes if you’re holding multiple passes on your device (British Airways supports up to 8).  That’s a lot of cognitive and physical work when there’s a queue of people behind you, you’re carrying bags, you’re holding on to your kids and you’re probably in a rush too.  Even if you’re a business traveller flying solo 3 out of 4 of those conditions could still apply.

Handing over a piece of paper seems less hassle and more reliable compared to all of this.  Bearing in mind that none of these issues diminish by flying frequently or becoming more familiar with using mobile boarding passes, I’d say that a more effective solution could be to keep the paper pass but redesign it.

Paper boarding passes may seem outdated next to their fancy mobile counterparts but they’re still the most common form of boarding pass for passengers who self-check in.  They’re so popular that we really should be paying them more attention.  Their flaws open up many opportunities for improvement.  Here are some ways we could address the pain points of the print-at-home boarding pass:

The Design


Print-at-home boarding passes are too big to carry.



This boarding pass was designed to an A4 size template to suit standard home printers.  Ryanair, Virgin America and Vueling’s passes fold into quarters to form a small booklet that (almost) fits into the passport.  Unlike theirs, this design folds into three equal sections.  This is why:

The quartered pass is quite bulky so it doesn’t fit comfortably into the passport making it more likely to fall out and be misplaced. This document is too important to risk that happening.  In thirds, the pass is slimmer and the passport holds it more securely.
Some airlines tear off a section of the boarding pass at the gate. That’s difficult to do when it’s in quarters but in thirds the option to do that is open.
Yes, in thirds there’s a bit sticking out at the top of the passport but this is valuable real estate - it can be used to give the passenger quick and easy access to vital information whenever they need it without having to remove the pass from the passport or unfold the paper.



The sheet divides into 3 main sections along the fold lines.  They split once more to create A and B sections with A being the upper area that is always visible, and B the lower area that is obscured when the pass is slotted into a passport.  The barcode is positioned at the back so that the user can place it on the scanner without having to remove it from the passport or turn it over.

To determine which information should go where, 5 phases of travelling were identified:

1. Preparations at home
2. Travelling to the airport
3. Arriving at the airport
4. Getting to the departure gate
5. Boarding the plane

The information relevant to each phase was grouped into logical sections of the pass:

boarding pass


Information Hierarchy


It’s difficult to locate key information on the boarding pass.



There are different levels of information hierarchy, but only one item is given more prominence in each section: the boarding time and the seat number.  These are the things that the passenger will be checking most often so they should be able to get the information at a glance.


Both departure and arrival destinations are emphasised in this design.  This is important for Phase 1 use (travelling to the airport).  In cities with multiple airports it is important that passengers are clear about exactly which airport and terminal they’re starting their journeys from.

boarding pass




All the technical jargon is confusing.



Natural language is used throughout the design to keep things simple and clear, e.g. the hand luggage restrictions and the labels (“From” and “To” instead of “Departure” and “Arrival”).  Passengers are also given a stated boarding time instead of a generic “Arrive 30 mins before departure” message.


Graphical devices


Boarding passes are so text heavy.



Several illustrations are used to reinforce information on the pass.  Not only does this make the pass look nicer, it benefits people who may have difficulty reading the text such as speakers of other languages and passengers with cognitive impairments.



Other accessibility considerations

The final design will include colour but never behind important text and never to convey information or information hierarchy.  No-one should be disadvantaged by viewing the pass without colour.  These considerations improve accessibility for passengers with cognitive and visual impairments and will also benefit users who may not have access to colour printers.


Mobile apps are great for many purposes but they should not be our automatic go-to.  As designers we need to keep our minds open to the solution that best fits the problem no matter what form that solution takes and how “low-tech” it appears to be.