What’s contained in a boarding pass barcode?

Shaun Ewing Popular, Technology, Travel and Lifestyle 29 Comments

Anyone who has flown within the past few years would have seen the now ubiquitous barcode on the boarding pass that’s scanned upon boarding the aircraft.
Over the years I have seen many people post images of these boarding passes online, often while reviewing new technologies such as mobile or web check-in. In most cases any personally identifiable plain-text information has been obfuscated yet the barcode has been left intact.

Eventually curiosity got the better of me and I decided to find out more information on the barcode standard, and the information contained within them.

History of the barcode

In 2005 the IATA (International Air Transport Association) commenced a five year project to deploy Bar Coded Boarding Passes (BCBP) across its member airlines to eliminate magnetic boarding passes. This change would allow airlines to use cheaper boarding pass stock, and even enable technologies such as web and mobile check-in – an advancement estimated to save the industry US$1.5bn annually.

What information do they contain?

When writing this article I sat out collecting various boarding pass barcodes both from my own archived web check-in and other boarding passes found on the Internet.

Using freely available software utilities, I decoded the barcodes and had a look to see what’s there. Here’s an example from a Qantas flight of mine taken last month (decoded from the barcode on the web check-in document):

That information translates to:

  • M1: Format code ‘M’ and 1 leg on the boarding pass.
  • EWING/SHAUN MR: My name.
  • 1A11A1: My booking reference.
  • BNESYDQF: Flying from BNE (Brisbane) to SYD (Sydney) on QF (Qantas).
  • 551: Flight number 551.
  • 107: The Julian date. In this case 107 is April 17.
  • Y: Cabin – Economy in this case. Others including F (First) and J (Business).
  • 26J: My seat.
  • 37: My sequence number. In this case I was the 37th person to check-in.
  • 00: Field size of airline specific data message. 00 as there isn’t any.

In this instance, Qantas are using the minimum data fields as required by the IATA BCBP standard, but what about other boarding pass types?

The next step was to try a real boarding pass issued at the airport.

There’s more information in this boarding pass barcode, which is as follows:

  • M1: Format code ‘M’ and 1 leg on the boarding pass.
  • EWING/SHAUN: My name.
  • E1AAAAA: Electronic ticket indicator and my booking reference.
  • SYDBNEQF: Flying from SYD (Sydney) to BNE (Brisbane) on QF (Qantas).
  • 0524: Flight number 524.
  • 106: The Julian date. In this case 106 is April 16.
  • Y: Cabin – Economy in this case. Others including F (First) and J (Business).
  • 23A: My seat.
  • 0073: My sequence number. In this case I was the 73rd person to check-in.
  • 3: My “passenger status”.
  • 59: There is a various size field. This is the size
  • >: Beginning of the version number
  • 2: The version number.
  • 18: Field size of another variable field.
  • 0: My check-in source.
  • B: Airline designator of boarding pass issuer.
  • 2: Another variable size field.
  • 9: Airline code.
  • 0: International document verification. ’0′ as I presume is not applicable.
  • QF: The airline my frequent flyer account is with.
  • 1245678: My frequent flyer number.
  • 128: Airline specific data.

After this I checked an iPhone boarding pass. This contains the same information as on an airport issued boarding pass.

What could you do?

Most of the information contained within the boarding pass is fairly mundane, and the main point to this exercise is – if you’re going to post an image of your boarding pass online and obfuscate your name – also obfuscate the barcode.

The booking reference is however contained within the barcode and someone could use that to manipulate your booking (if you have more flights to go).

Who is Eddy Chiu?

Qantas have an example web boarding pass on their web site for “FYSH/WILLIAM MR” – a name frequently seen on the sample Qantas cards and other literature.

Intriguingly the barcode on this boarding pass doesn’t match up with the details, and instead shows:

While Mr Chiu is on the same flight as on the boarding pass, he is not sitting in the same seat as Mr Fysh yet shares the same sequence number.

I suspect an easter egg or “calling card” from a developer.

Conclusion

Most of the information contained within the barcode is harmless, and besides the booking reference there is nothing that can’t be gleaned from a boarding pass left behind in a seat pocket.

However, if you are publishing an example of a boarding pass and don’t want your personal information (eg: name) to be discovered, then obfuscate the barcode as well!

I would also recommend not leaving your boarding pass on the aircraft when you disembark.

More information on the actual project and the standard is available on the IATA web site. NASA have also published a Julian Day Calendar.

About the Author
What’s contained in a boarding pass barcode? was last modified: April 20th, 2017 by Shaun Ewing

Comments 29

  1. Great article. I am currently waiting for my gate to show up and I was wondering what’s inside my boarding pass barcode. I checked it out with a barcode scanner on my mobile but I wasn’t able to figure out all the components (eg. The Julian day). Really interesting read to pass a bit of time right now 🙂 so thanks for sharing your research.

  2. When they scan the boarding pass at the gate before entering plane, where is this info going? Is it going to immigration, customs, TSA or is it only for the airline so that you can board the plane? I wonder

  3. Hi Shaun,We are looking into creating a web check-in system (that includes an indemnity agreement) for university clubs to issue barcodes as tickets for large scale events. Do you have any advice on how I may go about organising this?

    Regards,

    Shelby

  4. Hi,I just was been refused to go on board of an airplane, just because I refused to accept using and get issued a bar coded boarding pass, because of my believe system as a true practicing Christian.Though I had a valued passport, fly ticket and already my seat selection by email and an manual issuedboarding pass from my airline, after I had explained my concern regarding the bar code on these boardingpasses, which are electronic, but oh no, the security guard told me that I cannot see my mom overseasunless I accept an bar coded boarding pass. I am concerned what is all behind the bar code, last not leastwhen you go in a bank to apply for a loan, you want to make sure you know all your rights and responsibilitiesbefore signing it. But airport security expect people to swallow everything all in the name of security.Folks, we live in the time of revelation. What is when your name behind the bar code is connectedto triple six and you even do not know? They chose number combinations to relate to the holder and whatis one like this bad number poops up next to your name? Never mine the image of the bar code next to your name – you like that? I have a name and I am God’s child and refuse to perform blind acts as thetaking of such boarding pass. What is wrong with this world? Before it was good enough to show yourpassport and fly ticket. So I cannot fly to see my dying mom because I refuse blind deals like this bar coded boarding pass. How far we went as the human race – very sad, and my mom is crying now, wondering ifheaven is the only place we will get to see each other again.

  5. 2 times I have purchased items at Birmingham airport, and they have asked to scan my boarding card. W H Smiths, also Boots.I don’t want them having my information.

    1. Why do they want my information, and what are they going to do with it.Also at customs, when I hand in my passport, they slot it into the machine, and take a long time reading it (as if they are reading several paragraphs). What is that all about.

  6. Some contribution: “M”: Format code M”1″: 1 (leg) on the boarding pass”EWING/SHAUN_________”: Passenger Name.”E”: ELETRONIC TICKET INDICATOR”1AAAAA_”: Booking reference”SYD”: from airport SYD (Sydney)”BNE”: to airport BNE (Brisbane)”QF_”: on QF (Qantas).”0524_”: Flight number 524.”106″: The Julian date. In this case 106 is April 16″Y” : Cabin Economy in this case. Others including F (First) and J (Business)”23A_”: Seat”0073″: Check-in sequence number. In this case I was the 73rd person to check-in”3″ : Passenger status – checked-in and bagage droped”59″: Variable size fiel (hexadecimal) “>” : Beginning of the version number “2” : The message version number “18” : Field size of following structured message (unique)”0″ : Passanger Description”_” : Source of Check-in”_” : Source of Boarding Pass issuance” _ : Date of Boarding Pass issuance”B” : Document type (B = Boarding Pass)”___” : Airline Designator of boarding pass issuer”__________”: Baggage Tag licence plate “29” : Field size of following structured message (repeated)”___” : Air Line numeric Code”__________”: Document Form Serial Number”0″ : Selectee indicator”_” : International Document Verification”___” : Marketing Carrier Designator”QF_” : Frequent Flyer Airline Designator”1245678_________” : Frequent Flyer Number”_” : ID/AD Indicator”___” : Free bagage allowance”128″ : For individual airline use

  7. Shaun, thanks for an interesting read and for the tips! Badly dont have any ticket anywhere to check these readers.Eddy Chiu, we’ll find you! Haha

  8. The IATA spec provides airlines to even put multiple flight segments on one barcode. Airlines can also put whatever data their application needs (also in the spec) so I guess its useless to decipher what’s beyond the defined elements since this may vary anyway.Usually bigger and more established airline reservation systems (like Worldspan and Sabre) provide the barcode data to airline check-in and gate applications, so unless they’re really dumb we shouldn’t worry about sensitive info getting into our boarding passes.

    1. Thank you for your concern.The information is all publicly available in the IATA specifications for barcoded boarding passes (BCBP) and no laws have been broken here.

      In any case, I’m not under FBI jurisdiction 🙂

      1. Libya isn’t technically under US jurisdiction, either, but that didn’t stop the US government from bombing the hell out of them and installing a new dictator.

  9. Interesting, thanks! Just took a flight myself and wondered about this.By the way, your site’s CSS seems to be a bit fragile, because attempting to make your small fonts a bit larger (ctrl-+) causes the left (main) column to shift over to where the right column should sit.

    1. Thanks for letting me know Josh.I’m still stuck in the office (on a Friday evening!) but I’ll try to get around to fixing that this weekend. You can easily test for cross browser compatibility, but I didn’t think to check for different font sizes.

      Blame it on me being a network guy and not a designer 😉

  10. The QR code mobile boarding passes ANA give out actually include the extra fields with among other things your frequent flier number, so those aren’t restricted to the airport-issued oneshttp://www.flickr.com/photos/kalleboo/6197243200/lightbox/

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