How to Make Boarding Passes More Traveler-Friendly
This important slip of paper could be doing so much more to make your hellish travel day better
As someone who has travelled to 108 countries and territories so far, flying 35 to 40 airlines from six continents, I’ve had the chance to study airline boarding passes at some length. Being a travel and design aficionado, I go so far as to keep all my boarding passes, classifying them by various criteria and comparing the designs among airlines.
In my opinion, too few airlines pay attention to the design of their boarding pass. Lately, even the branding colors and the logo have disappeared from some ticket designs. Below is an example from Malaysia Airlines (until recently one of only a few five-star airlines in the world, according to Skytrax ratings) and another from United Airlines (sold as a flight codeshare via All Nippon Airlines, a five-star airline).
As one can easily notice, not much consideration is given to the hierarchy of information or the grouping of similar elements. In fact, the data seems haphazardly printed on both these tickets.
With examples like these, it’s honestly pretty easy to create something significantly better, as even a modicum of attention to detail would generate an improved experience.
First, let’s look at the prototype below. I divided the boarding pass into three equal sections, framed by two bands of equal size at each end (note that one of the bands is tearable).
Now, let’s ask ourselves what are the three most important things to know about your flight when you are at the airport, right after you’ve checked in. Based on my research, these are:
- General information about your flight
- How to get to the gate on time
- What to do when boarding the plane
In other words: General info, pre-boarding, and boarding.
Since you already know your own name, where you’re flying, and what day it is, the first section is more useful for the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) officers and personnel who double check the boarding pass before entering the passport control area.
However, an increasing number of these officers are now equipped with scanners that gather all the information from the same barcode scanned by the flight attendants when boarding the plane.
Personally, I would prefer to only display the passenger info as the initial of the first name + last name (in this case, “D. Vuia”) for privacy reasons. Far too often, as people wait in line to board the plane, they keep their passes in full view, with their names displayed boldly for prying eyes to see. For this example, however, I will leave it as full first and last names.
The really important piece of information in this section is the flight number, as this is the one detail the traveller needs to know prior to starting the process of getting to the gate, as they check the monitors for additional information, and also to see if the flight is on time, has any delays, or if the gate has changed.
One of the improvements in this design is displaying the flight number with the original airline (in this case, Air France AF374) and also the codeshare flight KL0681 (in this case, a KLM flight). When checking the status monitors, one will notice that flight info may be displayed in three or four formats, depending on the codeshare agreements with the partner airlines. It can look something like this (however these codes would be displayed alternatively, not all at once):
AF0374 / KL0681 / DL5672
It is sometimes beneficial to have at least the second format printed on the boarding pass, as passengers often stare at the monitor visibly confused when they see the destination and time of departure, but not the flight number they were originally familiar with.
This is the main area of focus for any traveller before they get to the gate. The boarding time and terminal/gate numbers are the most important pieces of data and therefore should be emphasized. I see some boarding passes with the departure time printed, but that might create confusion and make the passenger think that’s the time when they should arrive at the gate (which, obviously, would be far too late).
A basic map could be added to help orient the passenger to the direction of their gate, in relation to the security area/passport control. Also, having the sentence “average walking time to your gate after passing through security:” followed by a blank row for the variable [time] would let the passenger know how many extra minutes to allow for that journey. Sometimes, it might take 20 or more minutes to walk to the gate. Add to that a stop to the bathroom or a tired child, and it can become half an hour.
So, you’ve arrived safely at the gate, hopefully with time to spare. If it’s a large airplane, you will notice a few queue rows set up at the gate, with large numbers above them, usually from 1 to 5. This is the boarding sequence.
Airlines have finally realized that filling an airplane should be done like filling a bottle: from the bottom, up. If you invite the passengers in rows 1 to 20 to board first (assuming Economy starts at row 1), all passengers situated in rows 21 and higher would later have to crawl over the ones already boarded, as they arrange their suitcases and fuss around.
It’s best to start boarding with the rows in the back of the plane and move toward the front. Of course, Premium Economy, Business, First Class, and passengers with children are awarded priority above all else.
The example above highlights the most important detail to remember: your seat number. It also tells you where it is located (by the window in this case), displays a small icon with a yellow dot to show on which side and in which area of the plane your seat is located, and finally, shows a snippet of a map with your seat highlighted, similar to the ones online when you are given the choice to select your seat.
(For this example, I used a snippet with only a 2–2 seat configuration, but in reality, a flight from Paris to Vancouver would have a 2–4–2 or a 3–3–3 configuration.)
Below all that is the infamous barcode, containing all your sensitive information used by the gate and flight personnel to identify you.
And now, on to the side bars, one of which is tearable. Most current boarding passes have a tearable section that is about a third of the length of the ticket and that contains essentially the same information as the rest of pass. This is the stub, which you keep and show to the flight attendants as they direct you to your seat when you get on the airplane.
This design reduces the tearable stub to only a fraction of the original length and adds another one at the other end. Both display vital information such as the flight number, boarding time, gate, and seat number vertically.
Why is that? So that when the boarding pass sits in your passport, you do not have to take it out to review the info. You can just glance at it at any point.
Oh, but wait—where is the branding and logo in all this? Well, as I mentioned before, more and more airlines choose to go with the generic black and white pass, with a logo perhaps in an outlined font. In this case, the side stubs could be the airline’s branding color and the logo could be displayed on the verso.
Another option is to use one of the stubs (the non-tearable one) for this purpose. Either way, the option is there.
Please note: Since this is a design exercise, I used the Air France logo as an example, and although I personally hold this airline in high regard, my intention is not to endorse it in any way, nor is it to criticize the other airlines I mentioned above (United, ANA, or Malaysian). The two screenshots I used were acquired from Google Images and thus could have belonged to any other airline. Also, I chose the image of an American passport simply because it is one of the most widely used. Research and testing was performed with less than ten subjects and the work on this project is by no means final.
In the article “Customizing Your Flight Journey,” I show how this boarding pass can be tailored by the traveler to meet their preferences.