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In 2007 Continental Airlines started testing what was then a novel technology: allowing passengers to receive an electronic boarding pass on their mobile phones. Four years later, it is finally gaining traction. Now most of the major carriers offer mobile boarding passes at many airports in the United States and some abroad. With a growing number of travelers carrying smartphones, the era of paperless boarding may have finally arrived.
I recently tried a mobile boarding pass for the first time on a Delta flight out of La Guardia Airport, and had no problems checking in or getting through security and onto the plane. But it’s not yet a foolproof way to travel, so here are some things I learned from my test drive, as well as feedback from fliers who have used e-boarding passes many times.
American, Delta, Continental and United are the biggest e-boarding champions, offering this option to travelers departing from at least 75 airports. Alaska Airlines has introduced it at about 50 airports, and US Airways in nearly 20 cities. JetBlue, Southwest and Virgin America have not yet embraced mobile boarding.
The airlines list e-boarding cities on their websites – mostly cities with larger airports – but small airports are getting on board as the Transportation Security Administration and the airlines install equipment to scan travelers’ handheld devices. When you check in, you’ll see the mobile boarding pass option only if it’s available for your departure city – and your stopover city, if you’re making a connection.
Most carriers offer two ways to get an e-boarding pass: You can choose to have one sent to your mobile device (via email or text message) when you check in online, or you can use an airline app to check in and your boarding pass will appear within the application. The airlines say this option works with most Web-enabled smartphones and iPads, but if your device is finicky stick with paper.
When you get to the airport, you’ll have to navigate through your email or the airline app to display the boarding pass bar code on your screen so it can be scanned by a security agent and then again at your gate.
Using the Delta app on my iPhone, I found it was a little tricky to make sure that my boarding pass was visible and that my phone didn’t go to sleep just as I approached the agent. Some travelers find that security or airline staff members still get flustered – or annoyed – by the technology.
Robert Costello, a Delta frequent flier who often uses e-boarding passes, said he once had to walk to a different security checkpoint because the boarding pass reader wasn’t working at his lane, but he and other travelers say these glitches have tapered off as the technology has become more widespread.
He also suggested a way to avoid navigating through an email folder or app to retrieve your boarding pass, which can be slow if there’s a poor cell signal: Use your
phone to take a picture of the boarding pass screen ahead of time and show that image instead.
“On an iPhone, it’s just a matter of pushing the button at the top of the phone and the home button together,” he said. “I’ve found if I have a picture, that’s the fastest thing.” (Check your manual for information on how to do that with other smartphones.)
Turning up your screen’s brightness and carrying a charger with you are other useful tips – the latter in case your battery runs out during a delay and you need to find an outlet at the gate.
Costello said he prefers e-boarding passes because his phone is always at hand, whereas he used to have to rummage around in his pockets or bag to find a paper boarding pass, which is also more likely to get wrinkled or lost.
Another advantage of the electronic option is that travelers don’t always have access to a printer, so choosing a mobile boarding pass eliminates the hassle of stopping at a kiosk at the airport. However minimally, it also eliminates paper from the garbage stream.
The most obvious risk with mobile boarding is that if your phone’s battery dies or there are any problems reading your e-boarding pass, you’ll have to print one at a kiosk or ticket counter, and that could delay your trip if you’re running late.
Using a mobile boarding pass can also be a challenge if you’re traveling with multiple people in one reservation. US Airways and Continental offer e-boarding only if there’s one person in the reservation; with other airlines, each person can check in online and have a boarding pass sent to his or her phone. But most airline apps don’t handle multiple boarding passes, and even when it’s possible, it can take some juggling to manage several passes on one device.
Michael Rubiano, a United elite flier, said that when traveling with his wife and children, he has managed to have multiple e-boarding passes open in different windows on his smartphone’s browser. “But it’s kind of a pain,” he said. “And for most people, especially families not used to traveling frequently, it’s not really a practical option.”
He and other frequent fliers mentioned another concern: getting credit for missing miles without having a printed boarding pass to prove you were on a flight.
“I’m reluctant to use mobile boarding passes on an airline where I’ve had a problem with frequent flier miles posting on time and accurately,” said Kyle Raccio, who usually chooses a mobile boarding pass but opts for a print version when flying Continental.
Another solution is to save a digital copy of your e-boarding pass (especially if you check in using an app, because the pass typically disappears after your flight), or print a copy as a backup, which I did for my flight.
While that sort of defeats the purpose of going mobile, it can offer peace of mind as the airlines work out the kinks in what is still a developing technology.
“There are definitely pluses and minuses with mobile boarding,” Raccio said. “Hopefully, those minuses will be looked at and improved for travelers.”
- Susan Stellin © 2011 New York Times News Service
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