So how well do these digital boarding passes work?

Digital boarding passes in this eco-friendly, high-tech world are the next new big thing among the big airlines. Continental, American and Northwest are rolling out service to airports all over the country, and if you haven’t got a kiosk at your local airport, there is probably one on the way.

In concept, the system is pretty simple. When you check in online, instead of printing off your boarding pass you’re given the option to receive it digitally onto your phone or PDA. In addition to saving paper, the big advantage is that those on the go without a printer can just flash the barcode (it’s actually a matrix code) at security and at the gate then not have to worry about the slip of paper.

In actuality, the system still needs some time to get going – or rather, the airport employees still need some time to adapt.

This past Friday on the way to New York‘s LaGuardia airport I was given the chance to try out a digital boarding pass on my iPhone. After the jump I’ll tell you how it went.In the two weeks that I had been away from Detroit, McNamara terminal incorporated the barcode system into their gate and security checkpoints. Forgetting that the system was in place when checking in for my regular New York bound flight that Friday, I was surprised to find that e-boarding was an option, so had to give it a try.

From my desktop terminal at work, getting the boarding pass was easy. I went through the normal online check in procedure and instead of clicking “Check in and print boarding pass” I selected the e-boarding pass option and hit continue. The software then asked me for my carrier (AT&T), device (iPhone) and mobile phone number, digested them and sent me a text (SMS) message containing an online link to the pass. Opening that page with Safari gave me a one-page boarding pass with the QR code and gate information which I took my merry way to the airport.

Walking up to the security checkpoint at McNamara terminal, I cheerfully greeted the TSA agent with my iPhone and driver’s license extended.

“Oh…. one of those,” she said. The agent reached in front of her to a device just smaller than a breadbox, flipped a switch on the back of it and a red light illuminated at the top. Gesturing to me, I flipped my phone face down on to the window and let it sit. Nothing happened. Gently I waved the phone back and forth.

“Stop that,” she scolded me, and asked me if my backlight was on. As she poked at the machine a bit I turned the phone back to me and zoomed in on the QR code. Then I flipped it back over to the red light and it immediately accepted it. The agent silently gave my ID back and ushered me into the security line, where after a brief wait I found myself pushing my belongings through the X-ray. But what to do with the boarding pass that I was supposed to show the metal-detector wielding agent?

I waved my phone at him as my belongings were swallowed by the monster.

“Put it anywhere, just don’t keep it on your body.”

“It’s got my boarding pass,” I muttered, probably too quietly.

“Put it anywhere, just don’t keep it on your body.”

Okay. I tossed it in the vanishing bin and walked through the X-ray.

“Boarding pass?”

I told him it was on my phone and shrugged. The agent visibly rolled his eyes and paused.

“I’ll…. just need to pat you down.” He felt the pockets of my sweater and my jeans, turned me around and patted my lower back. Then he sent me on my way, ushering for the next passenger to pass under the magnetic arch.

Since I was a little late for my flight, I reached the gate only twenty minutes before departure. By that time the boarding zone was nearly empty and the gate agent was attending to a few stragglers. Walking up to the gate I showed her my iPhone with the QR code still zoomed in. She didn’t bat an eye, gestured to another red light and I flipped my iPhone over the top of it. The machine blipped happily, like a child who has just eaten a grilled cheese sandwich, and passed into the jetbridge, one sheaf of paper saved.

In summary, the system is works fairly well and I can see it being fairly useful some day when I’m in a hurry on the way to the airport. The small drawbacks I can foresee, which largely have to do with phone battery life, can be planned around, and in the worst scenario you can always get a paper copy. Once the TSA and airline staff are all up to speed on procedure, I think that the technology will really gain traction.