Mobile boarding passes: Fancy trick but not worth your time

By now you’ve probably heard of mobile boarding passes, the digital version of that slip of paper that identifies you, your flight, your seat and your pertinent itinerary information when flying around the planet. In concept they’re pretty slick: when checking in for a flight online, one can elect to have the boarding pass sent to a phone – what’s downloaded is a barcode (it’s actually closer to a QR code) that can be scanned at the security checkpoint and at the gate to allow boarding. Or that’s how it’s supposed to work.

These days, running Gadling and working on a dozen other small projects I find myself in the airport a lot, whether it’s in bouncing in between O’Hare and LaGuardia for work or sneaking up to Anchorage to visit a few friends for a long, creative weekend.

All of this time on the road has given me plenty of opportunity to road test mobile boarding, both when I was living in Detroit, a Delta hub and now that I’m living in Chicago, a hub for both United and American Airlines. I like the concept; it’s both environmentally friendly and more efficient.

My experience, however, is to the contrary. More often than not, when I download a mobile boarding pass something goes wrong in the process, whether it’s at the gate, security or with my phone. As a result, I end up actually losing time and wasting energy at the airport.The majority of flaws in the process come at the security checkpoint. Either the barcode scanner isn’t working, isn’t interpreting the data properly or the TSA agent isn’t familiar with the process. Right now, their only solution is to send the passenger back to get a hard-copy boarding pass. Sometimes they’ll let you cut in line when you return. Sometimes not.

It’s not often, but a small portion of the faults come from malfunctioning scanners at the gate.

Another part of the problem can be traced to hardware. Turning an iPhone sideways to scan the barcode almost always turns the image sideways as well. If the resulting, resized barcode is too big, the scanner won’t read it. Pick up the phone to look at the barcode and everything flips back over. Frustration goes up, people behind start to cough and things start to get awkward.

None of this is that big of a deal for a travel hardy person like myself, mind you, I don’t mind taking the time to work with a green cause. My problem comes with the delays incurred with going to back to get a paper boarding pass. The thing is, if I’m at the airport I’m always either 5 minutes away from boarding or walking out of the place – I don’t have time to wait in a giant security line only to be turned around to reprint my boarding pass – the risk is just too high.

That’s why Monday morning on the way in from LaGuardia I picked up an extra paper boarding pass on the way over to the C/D gates. Sure enough, when I got to gate C8 the scanner wouldn’t read my phone and 14 elite passengers nearly revolted behind me. Their frustration well reflects the current state of the art in mobile boarding technology: while cute, the concept needs far better implementation to ever become useful in a mainstream commercial travel.

[flickr photo via kalleboo]