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Goldstuck on Gadgets

The future has landed

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Air travel has become more and more tedious over the years as security steps up and airlines cut back. But finally, hi-tech gadgets and services are fighting back. For ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK, the future landed the day he printed out his own boarding pass at home.

I can pinpoint the day the future landed, precisely. It was 26 July 2010, and I was due to catch a plane to Cape Town.

By this time, I was already comfortable with the idea that I no longer needed a ticket. The airline industry had woken up a few years before to the fact that producing air tickets on expensive, forge-proof paper with multiple duplicates was evidence of mass obsessive compulsive disorder, when all you really needed was to positively identify the traveller.

Since corporate lunacy can only last so long, the industry finally moved to requiring merely identification and a reference number ‚ and even the number wasn’t necessary if your ID could be correlated with the passenger list.

Of course, some of us still like physical proof of booking ‚ especially on those rare but real occasions when the computer system at the airport chooses to deny our existence. So we print out the confirmation e-mail and present that triumphantly at the check-in counter. Or so I’m told. I haven’t seen a check-in counter for the past six months, despite being forced to sit in a tube of compressed air propelled through the sky on numerous occasions during that time.

This is thanks to the greatest travel gadget ever invented: the self-service check-in kiosk. Arrive at the airport, walk up to the kiosk, pretend not to notice the queues of the anxious at the check-in counter ‚ it’s not good traveller etiquette to be smug ‚ and after selecting your airline, choose one of any number of forms of identification. From frequent flyer number or booking reference to credit card or ID number, one is bound to work. If you arrive early enough, you even get to choose your seat from a visual display of available spots ‚ something you can’t do with a normal check-in unless you leap over the counter. Alas, handcuffs aren’t good for travel.

The first time I went through this procedure, and the self-service kiosk spat out a boarding pass, I fully expected to be turned back at the security gate. I was almost disappointed when they let me through without a murmur ‚ couldn’t they at least act startled at this evidence that I’d embraced the future of flying?

But this was nothing compared to my experience that July day. Printing out my letter of confirmation, I spotted a new addition to the standard thank you for making it ‚the carrier of your choice‚ :

‚Use On-line Check-in to beat the queues at the check-in desk and so enjoy faster progress through the airport and onto your flight.‚ Not believing it for a moment, I decided to test the system only to prove it was wishful thinking.

Astonishingly, after following the instructions and choosing a seat, I witnessed a miracle: on my computer screen: at home: a boarding pass.

I hit the Print button and … a boarding pass stuttered out of my printer. A piece of paper with the significance of the monolith that appeared to Neanderthals in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey: that giant structure emerging from nowhere symbolised the fact that the next phase in human evolution had begun. The humble print-out that emerged from my printer told me the future of travel had arrived.

Of course, paper itself will eventually be an ancient artefact. But that is merely detail. The 21st century is now available at an airport near you.

* This column appears in The Citizen every Saturday. You can follow Arthur on Twitter on @art2gee

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