Got an SSSS on your boarding pass?

Ever wonder why you seem to get patted down all of the time when you’re going through security at the airport? Or why they selected you at all?

The way that the TSA identifies threats is a complex process, but one way they have of adding a layer of security is by using your boarding pass against you. Specifically, the letters “SSSS” written on your pass mean that you need to get secondary screening, that is, a pat down and a quick search and swab through all of your belongings by a TSA officer.

That SSSS can come from a variety of sources – if the TSA agent who checks your ID at the beginning of the security line notices something strange about you or your or itinerary, he or she may write the code on your boarding pass and the agent at the metal detector will see it and pull you aside. The airline might also add the code when your document is being printed, perhaps, for example, if you purchased a high price one way ticket. Alternatively, a mean friend might write it on your pass when you’re not watching just to watch you get shaken down.

So is there any way around it? If the code comes from a programmatic source, there isn’t much you can do besides get to the security checkpoint early, be prepared for the worst and hope that your agent doesn’t look too closely at your pass. If the code shows up mysteriously after you were a jerk to a ticket or TSA agent, well, it might be a good idea to be more polite next time.

The future at the airport involves your phone, fingers and eyes

The year is 2016, you wake on time and make your way to the airport in your battery powered car. At the UnitedDeltaContinental airlines desk you wave your phone in front of the check-in kiosk and a green light indicates that you are cleared to proceed to the security checkpoint.

At the checkpoint, an agent waves his rfid reader tag in front of the wallet in your pocket, and you stick your hand in a biometric ID reader. The agent stares at a hidden display for a few seconds and allows you to walk through the full body scanner. As you pass through the device, you think back to the days when you had to place your bags on that stupid conveyor belt, and how it always delayed getting to the gate on time.

At the gate, you connect your iPhone 5G with the gate information system, and you instantly receive a message about your upgrade request, sadly you’ll be stuck in coach again for this flight.

Boarding is delayed 20 minutes, once it begins, your phone begins to vibrate that your boarding group is allowed to get on the plane. At the gate, you stare into the airline iris scanner, and the gate attendant allows you to board.

A lot of what I just wrote sounds very much like science fiction, but the idea behind it is based upon developments being made in the world of aviation technology. Airlines and airports have long been very outdated places, and innovation meant investing in new equipment, which is something airlines hate doing.
Mobile boarding passes

The “swipe to board” mobile phone boarding pass may not be here just yet, but the foundations for this kind of technology are already in place. Our very own Grant Martin was one of the first people to post a real life review of using an iPhone instead of a paper boarding pass, and wrote about his experiences here.

The idea of using your phone as a boarding pass is nothing new, but now more and more phones are being sold with large high-resolution displays, airlines are beginning trials that will allow you a true paper-free experience. There are even some phones out there with the ability to “swipe and read”, like a system being offered on some Nokia phones called “Near Field Communications

My prediction? We’ll be seeing more airlines introduce trials of mobile phone boarding passes in 2009, and by 2011 all airlines will have the equipment in place to let you board using a bar code image on your phone display.

TSA/immigration biometric ID readers

In an ideal world (in the minds of the Department of Homeland Security), we’ll all be fingerprinted, and will have our personal information stored in a massive government database.

The first steps are already being taken at the immigration checkpoint where visitors to the country are fingerprinted. The next step beings early next year, when US Permanent Residents get fingerprinted when they return to the US.

As the fingerprint database begins to grow, it probably won’t be too long until someone floats the idea (again) of a national ID with fingerprint information.

Some airports already have government backed biometric systems in place; Amsterdam Schiphol introduced the Privium system back in 2001 and London airports have been offering passengers the ability to bypass the immigration desk with their IRIS system since 2006.

The US “INSPASS” biometric immigration system was in place as early as 1993, but was abandoned in 2002. The foundations of INSPASS are now being used for border crossings between the US and Canada in the NEXUS system.

My prediction? A nationwide US biometric database won’t happen for at least 10 more years. Privacy is something far too important to allow technology to intervene with, especially when the government has a poor track record of implementing these new projects. I do forsee larger projects by the private sector allowing travelers to pass the checkpoint faster. Clear already does biometric authentication at the airport, but only at a limited number of cities.

Security checkpoint full body scanners

The full body scanner is not new, but it is needless to say that the concept of a full body x-ray doesn’t sit too well with many people. The scanners are currently being tested at 10 different US airports, but the trial only involves offering the scanner as an alternative to a pat down in a secondary security search.

The obvious question is whether the scanner can see “everything”, and the answer is yes – the full body scanner will see all your “parts”, the TSA tries to alleviate passenger concerns by moving the screener away from the machine, hidden away in a dark room. Your face is also blurred on the display, so there is no risk of TSA agents pointing at you while giggling like little school girls.

Sadly, the truth is that the full body scanner is probably here to stay, and will eventually become the way all passengers are scanned at the airport. There is no denying that the ability to see right through you and your clothes is the most effective way to scan for weapons or other unwanted items at the airport. Whether this technology will also involve you walking through with your bags is just a matter of time.

My prediction? By 2012 we’ll have full body scanners at some of the major airports in the country, and by 2015 all airports will be scanning passengers with these devices.

Gate technology improvements

A large number of passengers at the airport already walk around with a Bluetooth enabled phone in their pocket, so when you mix that technology with tracking software, you end up with something that can tell where you are, or more importantly where you are when you should be at the gate getting on your flight.

Copenhagen airport has a system in place that uses this technology to track passengers who voluntarily participate in the program.

Imagine a world where the airport announcement doesn’t just ask Mr.Jones to proceed to gate 12, but also tells him to get the hell out of the duty free store and run, because it is a 9 minute walk from where he currently is.

My prediction? Within the next couple of years, we’ll see a true “real time” boarding announcement system that can communicate with your mobile phone. It may be as simple as an email telling you to hurry up, but I have no doubts that airlines will do everything they can to speed up the boarding process, and try to get a better idea of where passengers are when they should be at the gate.

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.

Galley Gossip: More stuff for the airline museum…

“What are you doing with all that?” asked The Husband, holding a huge bag of seafood as he stared (very rudely) into my grocery cart.

“It’s for work,” I said, and then I pushed the cart down the aisle – away from him, away from his hands, hands that, if given the chance, would take what was in my cart out of my cart.

“Work?” I heard him say behind me.

“Yeah work. I’m going to write about it!” I exclaimed, thankful to have an excuse, a very good excuse – that was actually true! – as I continued pushing the cart to the check out stand.

Following quickly behind me, he asked, “Just how many bottles do you need?”

As many as I could get in the cart. But I didn’t tell him that. What I told him was we needed all the bottles of wine for our guests that were in town visiting. What I didn’t tell him was that there was no way the guests that were in town visiting were going to touch my wine. That’s right, I said it, my wine!

If you’re a flight attendant, or an aviation enthusiast, you probably own a lot of airline crap. Like me. Of course we don’t refer to it as crap. Oh no, these are our treasures. Precious treasures. That belong in a museum. Like the one I USED to have in my guest room closet. I say USED to have because The Husband recently boxed up my airline museum and drove the contents that are now inside a giant grey tub to a storage facility nearby. Of course he did this while I was away on a trip.

Hey, that’s fine with me. Now I’ve got more room for more crap. I mean treasures! Like AUS Boarding Pass 2006 Shiraz, a very cool bottle of wine I found at Costco.

There I was at Costco, leaning against the wine, impatiently waiting for The Husband to hurry up and pick out a few crab and shrimp from the crab and shrimp guy so we could FINALLY leave and start dinner, when I actually turned around and focused on what I happened to be leaning on. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was like god had sent them to me. And oh my god they were so cute! I had to have one. Or two. Or three. In case I needed to…umm…you know…share…or something. As I filled the cart, I couldn’t help but think what a great flight attendant gift the bottles of wine would make, so I put a few more bottles into the cart. That’s when The Husband appeared and I took off.

The name of the wine, you ask? I’m not sure. On one side of the bottle, the side that looks like a boarding card, it says Boarding Pass. On the other side of the bottle, the side that looks like an information card (the one located in the seat back in front of you) it says Grateful Palate Airwines. And around the top of the bottle, the thing that looks like a baggage claim ticket, it says AUS Boarding Pass 2006 Shiraz. Like I said, it’s not exactly clear. What is clear is it’s the most adorable bottle of wine I’ve ever seen. And it tastes pretty good, too.


Before you jump into the car to go and look for your own cute bottle of wine to add to your own museum, because I know you will, which is good, because you really should…do you think you could pick me up another bottle. Ya know…in case I lose a bottle…or something.



Beginning today: Boarding pass advertisements

Six of the legacy carriers carriers announced today that they’re participating in a new program to implement advertisements into their boarding passes. So now when you try to save time by checking in online you’ll be bombarded with a Carnivial Cruise ad that you have to print out and carry around with you while you’re at the airport.

Anything to make money, right? I’m kind of surprised that we don’t have ad space on the inside of aircraft — on the ceiling, walls and seat backs — US Airways already tried putting advertisements on the air sickness bags.

Today, Delta will be the first carrier to test drive the service, called Sojern, on its routes into Vegas, but the ads will quickly multiply around that route. Bacteria reproducing in a host body is a good way to think about that.

What I’m most curious about is whether the 3rd party ads will be custom tailored to the specific passenger. Will I, a young male be getting ads for Lane Bryant? Or will Sojern work with the airline to study my travel behavior, look at my past trips and send me a coupon for happy hour in New York?

Either way, you can kiss your old print-at-home boarding passes goodbye. Which is fine with me, as long as they don’t raise ticket prices.