Update from the field: Mobile boarding passes still don’t work

Gadling Labs is on the road this steamy August weekend, bouncing from O’Hare to Houston to Seattle and to Anchorage. It’s a good day for flying – there are unusually few thunderstorms barreling through the Midwest, our hangovers are light and the red vinaigrette in first class is a bit punchier than normal. Perhaps its the humidity on this Canadian Regional Jet of yore.

Following up on our post last week on the questionable efficacy of mobile boarding passes, we decided to take a pair of American Airlines and Continental Airlines passes out for a spin today.

Passing the TSA officer outside of the K/H wing in O’Hare, we fired up our handy iPhone 3GS and downloaded the boarding pass on the fly. Asked about the failure rate of mobile passes at this station, the friendly officer replied “About one in a thousand here.” That’s a pretty good hit rate, and it’s too bad that we’ve been one of those out of a thousand in the past.

Slipping through security (digression: when timed, we found that the new backscatter scanners process passengers at almost half the rate as the traditional magnetometers) and ambling over to the H5, it was far too early for boarding, so a little bit of browsing on our not-so-reliable Clear hotspot helped us pass a half hour.

And when boarding began? We were the second in line. Problem was, the iPhone tried to reload the Safari webpage when we opened up the browser, and now that our session was stale the boarding pass had disappeared. We were left with the image above, no boarding pass and a line of stuffy passengers starting to grow impatient.

Lesson learned! Always carry a paper boarding pass. And when downloading the mobile pass? Make sure to cache a local copy on your phone for later use – many sites offer the option to “save a copy” when the pass initially opens and this could save a lot of time and effort while in transit.

Next up? Trials with the Continental Airlines boarding passes!

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]

United Airlines announces wireless check-in and paperless boarding passes

A mere 24 hours after American Airlines announced the expansion of their paperless boarding passes, United Airlines becomes more mobile with their own services. The United Airlines announcement involves two new technologies – mobile check-in and paperless boarding passes.

With mobile check-in, you simply point your mobile browser to mobile.united.com, and enter your flight information. If you are flying out of Chicago O’Hare, Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York La Guardia, San Francisco or Washington Dulles, you can have your boarding pass emailed to your device.

For other airports, you’ll need to pay Mr Easy Check-In a visit to have a paper boarding pass printed. Of course, if you have baggage to check, you’ll still need to stop at a desk or use a Skycap.

With the paperless option, you save a bar code image to your device, ready for the checkpoint and boarding gate staff to scan.

United expects to expand the paperless option to other airports as soon as possible. Orlando, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Portland and Seattle are next on the list to receive the service.

At the United Airlines mobile site, you can also check flight status, flight availability, Mileage Plus statements, Red Carpet Club locations and airport codes. I’m happy to see airlines invest in these technologies – anything that can speed up the process of getting from the front door of the airport to the plane is great.

Have you used mobile boarding passes yet? How was your experience with them?


American Airlines expands mobile boarding pass system to 19 new airports

Yesterday, American Airlines announced on Twitter that their mobile boarding pass system has been expanded to 19 new airports.

The system allows you to receive an email link to a mobile boarding pass on your (smart)phone, and to save the image to your device. At the security checkpoint and boarding gate, you simply show your phone, and allow the bar code to be scanned.

Now, this all sounds great on paper, but I’ve had my fair share of problems getting it to work correctly – the scanners at the checkpoint don’t always work, and when you are in line at the gate waiting to board, you’ll need to be sure you can pull up the image quickly.

When your phone goes into standby, it can take 20 seconds or more to get back to the image. Also, on the iPhone I’ve noticed that the image needs some zooming to work correctly. Back in 2008, our very own Grant Martin was one of the first to take the system for a spin – and had similar issues.

Still, paperless boarding is the future, and eventually the minor issues will be resolved, which means you no more late night hassles to find a working printer at your hotel.

The airports participating in the mobile boarding pass system are: Albuquerque (ABQ), Atlanta (ATL), Austin (AUS), Charlotte (CLT), Chicago O’Hare (ORD), Cleveland (CLE), Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW), Denver (DEN), El Paso (ELP), Houston George Bush Intercontinental (IAH), Jacksonville (JAX), Las Vegas (LAS), Little Rock (LIT), Los Angeles (LAX), Memphis (MEM), Minneapolis/St. Paul (MSP), New York LaGuardia (LGA), Oklahoma City (OKC), Orlando (MCO), Phoenix (PHX), Santa Ana/John Wayne/Orange Counte (SNA), Salt Lake City (SLC), San Antonio (SAT), San Diego (SAN), San Francisco (SFO), Tulsa (TUL), and Washington Dulles (IAD) airports.




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.