Continental Airlines has become the first carrier to offer paperless boarding passes on inbound transatlantic flights to the United States from Frankfurt Airport, Germany.

The new technology speeds up check-in by allowing passengers to scan a barcode on their smartphone instead of presenting a paper boarding pass, removing the need for any physical documentation apart from a passport.

Paperless boarding passes use a two-dimensional barcode, similar to the black and white QR codes used extensively for marketing purposes in Japan. Passengers must show the image on a cell or smartphone screen, allowing airline staff to scan their device with a barcode reader. Encrypted data in the barcode contains the passenger details and flight information, in a format that Continental claims offers heightened security by preventing manipulation or duplication of boarding passes.

Paperless boarding is already in widespread operation in Europe and is being tested at 30 US airports. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is pushing hard for global adoption of the standard, having committed to phase out the easy-to-lose magnetic boarding passes by the end of 2010 to save an estimated $1.5 billion a year in costs. Several airlines such as Air Canada and American Airlines already offer apps featuring paperless boarding technology.