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Now Boarding

November 24, 2008

Before committing this past Friday evening to a flight down the west coast, I spent a bit of time preparing to try out something that I’d been curious about for a while. Could I get through US immigration and airport security both without a paper boarding pass?

Alaska Boarding Pass on an iPhone

Of course these days it’s becoming more common to check in for a flight from a browser window and print out your own boarding pass before leaving for the airport, but I’ve been wondering why the printing part is necessary. I’ve heard reports of varying success from others who have attempted going purely electronically, so I made sure to have a paper backup in my bag for this one. Just in case.

At Home

There’s an iPhone application called AirSharing that acts as a basic file server as well as a document viewer for a lot of common file formats, all on your phone. I managed to grab a free copy during a promo months back and though I hadn’t yet put it to use, this seemed like the best way to get a nicely-formatted boarding pass onto my phone’s large screen.

At the end of the web check-in you’re asked to print your boarding pass, which I did, but I also “printed” a second time to PDF. For those not familiar, OS X has a built-in PDF generator that acts as a virtual printer; anything that you can print to a piece paper, you can also save to an identically-formatted PDF straight from the operating system’s standard print dialogue.

Connecting to my phone was a simple matter of hitting a button in AirSharing to find out my phone’s IP address, opening it as a server from my Mac (Cmd + K in the Finder), and there is no step three. Once I had my phone’s shared folders showing up in Finder just like any other computer on the network, I dragged my boarding pass PDF into one of them and verified it would render properly on the phone’s screen. The text and scanner codes were legible, if a little small, but it otherwise looked exactly like my print-out.

Update: why didn’t I just mail the PDF to myself and open it in Mail? That question was posed in the comments, and the answer is because I just didn’t think of it, not being a regular Mail user myself. So that’s another way of having a local copy of the PDF on your iPhone.

Giving myself an extra hour just in case, off to the airport I went.

At the Airport

Upon reaching the web check-in counter I presented my ID and flashed my screen-based pass at the gate agent, asking whether this was going to work or not. She didn’t have a clue, no one had tried it before (that she knew of). Since I’d already checked in online it didn’t need to be verified at this stage, but she helpfully offered to try running the scanner over the bar code and see if it registered. It didn’t. I suspect it wasn’t the screen that was the problem here, it was the software. I couldn’t zoom the code up to full life size, so the resolution was definitely less than optimal. Possible feature request for the next version of AirSharing: a higher zoom level.

Anyway, one checkpoint down, a bunch to go. Most major Canadian airports — Vancouver included — have on-site US immigration and customs booths you’re required to clear since many flights between the two countries are treated as domestic flights on the US side. So this means more places I need to show my boarding pass.

Before customs a fairly redundant document parser stopped us all to check documentation, just to make sure we’ve got everything we need to make it through the next few steps. I showed my phone, and hit my first speed bump. A confused stare and a moment’s hesitant pause, and I was asked if I had a paper pass? This is the paper pass, I countered with. Exactly the same as what would have printed out, just on a screen. Well, he wasn’t at all sure about that, and as soon as I helpfully mentioned I had my paper pass in my bag if it was absolutely necessary, he decided it was, indeed, absolutely necessary. After fishing out my printed pass, I showed him paper and screen side by side to prove the point, and continued on.

The next step was US immigration control. I presented my passport and customs form, and was asked to produce my boarding pass. Handing over the phone, the only comment I got was “boy, I’m getting old” as he squinted to make out the tiny font. A bit of banter about the difference between Canadian and US thanksgiving later, and I’m on to customs, which is a freebie for the purposes of this experiment since they only needed my customs form.

Security was up next. The first checkpoint happens as I enter the line, where a women with a highlighter walks through the line to verify everyone standing there actually has a flight to catch. When she got to me I once again handed over the phone. A bit of a pause, an exclamation of interested surprise that this was possible, and a bit of confusion over the next step (“You may not want to circle this one with your marker” I jokingly cautioned), and she let me through.

As I reached the front of the security line and started the disembarking process of my personal effects for screening, the guy on the other side of the conveyor belt started asking for my boarding pass, halted, and grabbed a folded up piece of paper I had set down. That was the paper backup I had pulled out earlier, so I started to explain that I had… oh forget it, I thought, this one was a miss. But then he noticed that it hadn’t been circled back in line, so I pulled out my phone and continued the explanation. He seemed to get it, but thought maybe it was more common on the domestic side since he hadn’t seen anyone do this on his watch. Either way, I was let through, and that got me to the gate.

A few hours of delays and inedible airport food later, and it was finally time to board. I decided to be at the front of the line, in the “may need extra time boarding” group since I was worried that the too-small-to-scan barcode would end up holding up the line. Instead, as I handed over my phone to the ticketing agent, I got an amused “this is so cool!”, a verification of my seat number, and a wave on through.

So I made my flight, and finished this post in a Starbucks in LA.

Conclusions

Out of the six checkpoints I encountered on my way through the airport, the only one who forced me to fish out my paper pass was a relatively inessential precursory check. And now that I have some actual experience to back me up, I expect that’s one I can talk my way through by showing a bit of confidence in my electronic pass next time.

Still, though I have no doubt we’ll all regularly use electronic passes in the fairly near future, this feels like the early days. I decided to play my experiment as a light-hearted attempt at something new, rather than insisting this was a legitimate method. If it doesn’t work, no big deal, I have paper in my bag I can also show. This attitude likely helped, and will help in the future until this is more common and those working the various checkpoints have encountered screen-based passes a few times, checked with their supervisor, and made sure they’re not doing something wrong by letting the holders through.

Before each checkpoint I made sure I had AirSharing loaded and the pass up on screen and shown in the right orientation (landscape worked better than portrait since the type was larger). Wasting time by messing around with a screen after being asked to produce documentation feels like a great way to stack the odds against acceptance of the electronic pass, so I jumped out of line a few times to ensure it was ready to go.

Though I didn’t really think of it at the time, it may be that I dove into the deep end by testing this on an international flight. Domestic flights have fewer checkpoints, and presumably there’s a little more leniency for new methods of ID and boarding. At the very least you’re only dealing with a single country’s regulations. I probably would have tried domestically a few times before attempting an international flight, were I in the habit of regularly flying within my own country. Which I’m sadly not.

I also think a more capable zoom function in AirSharing (or some other PDF viewer) would make things a bit easier. Not being able to read what’s on screen likely doesn’t help sell the electronic boarding pass. I flew Alaska, whose web-printed passes have tiny type to begin with.

Will I attempt it again? Sure, but I’ll keep covering my bases for now by having a paper boarding pass on hand and only trying this in airports where I speak the predominant language.


1
November 24, 12h

I use AirSharing for my boarding pass almost exclusively on my regular flights from YYZ to LHR. I’ve never had any success on flights to the US (tighter security?) but the folks at YYZ now seem to expect me to pull out my iPhone (maybe it’s a familiarity thing with me rather than the technology) when I’m heading out to London. Of course, on the London side, I have IRIS security set up so I don’t have to go through customs or security of any kind, so that makes it easier as well.

2
November 24, 12h

Sounds to me like you spent quite a bit of time explaining about the iPhone. I’m sure some day electronic boarding passes will become mainstream, but having to explain things over and over makes it not worth it to me. I have enough difficulties trying to explain things to some clients… ;)

3
November 24, 12h

I tried it with westjet in Ottawa. West jet actually advertises that electronic cell versions are enough. It wasn’t. Security would not accept it and they forced me to go to the westjet counter to get a paper one. West jet was like “oh security always stops these. They are such a pain”. Anyways I was less than thrilled.

4
November 24, 12h

Awesome experiment Dave. You make a good point about the fact that you might have been more successful had you been more confident in your electronic pass. Most of the security employees are just doing what they feel is necessary to cover their butts should anything go wrong, so if they get the impression that what you are doing is completely normal they are likely willing to agree with you.

It’s inevitable that this is going to become quite the norm so they might as well get used to it anyway.

Thanks for the write-up.

5
November 24, 12h

Dave, that’s great! Though it’s been my experience that security folks vary greatly from one airport to another and most are rude if you don’t fit in perfectly. Makes you wonder though, when will the airlines/airports get on with technology?

I’m going to have to try this on my next trip.

6
@ChunLum says:
November 24, 12h

Thank you for this detailed writeup! I’m an iPhone carrying frequent traveler. I read about this type of paperless e-ticketing (how’s that for being redundant) a couple of weeks ago and have been curious to know how it would work if put to the test. This is a great read, but I don’t think I’m brave enough to try it on my next trip to China. :-)

7
Steve says:
November 24, 13h

Some airports and airlines offer paperless checkin, eg. Air NZ.

Cattle-class passengers can download barcodes to their cellphone, and biz and first class get an RFID chip.

http://www.3news.co.nz/News/NationalNews/Air-New-Zealand-introduces-paperless-check-in-system/tabid/423/articleID/77527/cat/415/Default.aspx

8
November 24, 13h

I’ve just parsed your post, but wanted to note that you *can* scan PDF’s on the iPhone screen. I have the USPS 10% off anything coupon for Best Buy saved on my phone… you can use it again and again and they scan right from the phone!

I’m thrilled to hear that there might such a low barrier… but oh how I’d hate it if that guy circled the whatever he circles on my screen! Reminds me of the blonde with whiteout on the monitor! :)

9
Dave S. says:
November 24, 13h

@Angela - I’m not at all surprised that the iPhone screen is scannable, I’ve read as much elsewhere. In this one particular instance it wasn’t, but like I say I think that’s the fault of the software more than the screen. And your experience confirms that.

10
Iris Ng says:
November 24, 13h

I’m not sure if this would be helpful in the barcoding stage, but could you not make the boarding pass a jpg (from the pdf) and sync into your pictures, that way you can zoom it in to get the barcode. Seems like a lot of steps, but that thought came to me when you had mentioned that it was hard to read for the customs officer as well as the barcode scanner at the counter. Great experiment btw!

11
November 24, 13h

Dave,

as I facetiously asked via twitter - what happens if your batteries go flat? Right now folks like you will have a paper backup - but what happens when this becomes common place? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for it!

In Australia, more than one airline is introducing this at least domestically, so I’ve no doubt there’ll be coordination with the local equivalent of the TSA about the whole issue.

j

12
Scott says:
November 24, 13h

I’ve tried the same thing for a recent flight from the US to the UK.

Leaving the US was extremely easy, with no problems… when I hit the UK, LHR specifically, I got a little bit of push back, but the customs guy eventually let me through. They seemed abrasive towards my data being on the screen as opposed to on paper(As if it couldn’t be faked if it was on paper).

For my return flight, it was again abrasive at customs coming back from the UK and a breeze in once I got to the US.

I can’t wait for all digital boarding passes and less resistance. Until that happens, I will be carrying print outs as back up.

13
November 24, 13h

Dave:

You said that it wasn’t the iPhone screen that kept it from being scanned, but I would argue that it was. I recently wrote an iPhone application that allows you to type barcodes in from value cards, and in return it displays the barcode to perfect spec. I thought this was an awesome idea, but it simply doesn’t scan.

There has been a recent move in barcode scanners toward laser scanners that absorb reflected light, as opposed to absorbed light. From what I have read the glass on the screen does not allow the light to be reflected properly so you can not scan off of screens like an iPhone. This was a huge disappointment to me, especially after having the application finished. And since laser scanners are what are used at self checkout counters.

Also, Angela says that it can be scanned. Most likely the scanner used in this case was a CCD scanner or a scanner that uses an actual camera. It comes down to what the people at the airport use to scan.

Anyway, its good to hear that you made it through!

14
Anthony says:
November 24, 13h

Did you see the article in The Atlantic, particularly concerning boarding passes?

http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/print/200811/airport-security

15
November 24, 13h

I really don’t get what the fuzz is about with security. It ought to be enough to produce a number (even a handwritten one on paper, PDA, phone, whatever). I take it they check the number against their database along with your Passport/ID. That combination should get you through (or not).

Relying on anything other that some kind of ID (like your name, flight number, etc) is asking for getting scammed…

16
November 24, 14h

Radical.

Now you just need a solar charger for the iphone.
Returning from a months vacation in the African selva would be harsh on paperless tickets in a remote airfield without power.

Then again, Alaska Airlines doesn’t fly their directly (I love Alaska Airlines).

17
Dave S. says:
November 24, 14h

@John Allsopp - Out of all of these, batteries were the least of my worries. I made sure to fully charge ahead of time. If at some point in the future this becomes commonplace enough that I forget to charge them, I’d imagine I’ll waste a half hour going back to the checkin counter and asking them to issue me a paper boarding pass.

@Sam McDonald - thanks for the insight. The barcode in this case is a 2 dimensional scan code rather than a traditional lined barcode, so I’d assume it’s a different scanner. Whether it’s one capable of picking up the iPhone or not, I don’t know, but I did observe a woman this summer at the Newark airport attempt to use her Treo’s screen in the same way, and watched as security successfully scanned it. It’s also worth noting that no one actually ended up scanning mine on my way through YVR after the initial test scan.

@Jilles - don’t travel much, do you? Airport security is rarely about the best way to do things these days. The Atlantic article that Anthony linked immediately preceding your comment is a great example.

18
November 24, 14h

Dave,

I wonder what happens in the AirShare viewer if you print the page at 200% (I’ll have to test this) or if you screen grabbed just the barcode at 200%. It might improve the ability of scanners to recognise it.

19
November 24, 14h

Dave:

Ahh, since it is a 2D barcode it is much more likely to be scanned off a screen, so my initial assumption is wrong.

Too bad Kroger Value Cards don’t use a 2D barcode.

20
Chris says:
November 24, 15h

Hey Dave, some airlines are already starting to send boarding passes to mobile phones (American, Continental, Delta): http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/dont_leave_home_without_a_char.php

21
Mike D. says:
November 24, 16h

Dumb question, but why was the AirSharing part necessary? Seems like e-mailing yourself the PDF is enough, no? The iPhone can read and format PDFs from email or the web browser natively.

(Yes, I’m probably being that annoying guy who is overlooking something obvious and making a dumb suggestion).

22
John B says:
November 24, 16h

Last time I flew Air Canada the web checkin offered to send some SMS messages to my phone with URLs in them to barcodes, which were supposed to be scannable at the airport. However, my phone turned out to be too low-tech to view the URL.

23
Dave S. says:
November 24, 16h

@Mike D. - more like I was the one overlooking something obvious. I just don’t use Mail that much so I never thought of that. Probably is easier.

24
Dave S. says:
November 24, 16h

@Chris - that’s pretty much exactly the sort of system I had in mind when I wrote “I have no doubt we’ll all regularly use electronic passes in the fairly near future”. Good to see they’re on it.

25
Karan J says:
November 24, 17h

Yeah, as mentioned above, Qantas, their low-cost subsidiary Jet Star and Virgin Blue in Australia are trialling something similar to this for domestic flights. They send the barcode as an image attachment to an MMS (sorry iPhone!), and you need to present that at the boarding gate. This is in addition to a paper pass at the moment.

It’s stories like these that make you realise we’re slowly on the way to the future :)

26
November 24, 20h

I had taken a domestic Air Canada flight that offered the web check-in. I had the boarding pass on my phone and it felt strange to present it instead of a paper pass at each stage. But I had no problems getting through. I can imagine going to the US being a little more difficult.

27
November 25, 03h

Wow, interesting :)
I’m flying from the Netherlands to Thailands in a month, I’m definitely going to try this. Unfortunately I don’t have an iPhone but a Sony Ericsson w960i, but the screen is large enough and I’m able to view PDF’s with it, so it might just work.
I’m afraid Thailand will be a lot harder than the Netherlands though.

28
November 25, 09h

I think your a brave man, trying experiments at airports these days, Dave. But kudos for being one of the pioneers!

Incidentally if this does become common place in the future I can see myself forgetting to charge my device as a very possible danger.

29
Thierry Bernard says:
November 25, 18h

There are signs requiring to turn off cell phones at the entrance of the US custom area in Montréal airport…

30
November 27, 08h

@Dave S:

I actually do. My statement is about how it _ought_ to be, not how it is. I have similar gripes with other businesses (who doesn’t?). For example, stopping a health insurance can be done by phone in the Netherlands, and the only thing they do to for verification is asking for the (super secret) date of birth… Arrg.

“@Jilles - don’t travel much, do you? Airport security is rarely about the best way to do things these days. The Atlantic article that Anthony linked immediately preceding your comment is a great example.”

31
November 27, 15h

I may just have to try this on my Delta flight from NY to Milan coming up in December. Since it’s international, I’m going to print one as well, just be safe. Thanks for the idea..

32
December 04, 10h

I was using the electronic boarding passes for a while, but found them to be a pain. I’m all about the old-skool paper boarding passes now…

It is frustrating enough to have to take your jacket off, get your laptop out of your bag and take your belt off. Having to deal with unlocking your iPhone isn’t worth the hassle.

The final straw was when I took a Westjet flight a couple of weeks ago. Showed the electronic pass to the agent at the gate. As I was fumbling with my bag and phone I managed to move the pass into a random folder (no undo!). The FA didn’t let me on the plane even though I knew my seat number and I had to go to the back of the line and get a paper pass.

Long live paper!


33
December 07, 16h

Anyone tried ACTPrinter? You can print straight to your iPhone (http://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewSoftware?id=296083171&mt=8)

34
Aaron says:
January 04, 04h

Questions:

1. What happens if the cell phone / electronic device is banned from use in the terminal? (ie the security gates)

2. With the photoshop/design mastery of the average person, is there a potential danger of creating an illegal market for fake digital boarding passes? If person Y will not make their flight, what security systems need to be in place to prevent person X from finding out, making a fake photo id, a fake boarding pass, and then finally hoping on a plane in place of the missing person? This problem is also an issue with paper systems; yet, I argue a digital fake is going to be a lot easier to craft then a paper fake.

Digital boarding passes are a great concept. I’m just worried about the potentials both for abuse and for malfunctions.

Thanks for the experiment!

35
Dave S. says:
January 04, 12h

@Aaron -

1) then I guess you’d go back to the ticket counter and get a paper one. They usually are banned, but I think they’re mostly worried about data going in and out and photos.

2) yes. But the same is exactly true for print at home paper boarding passes as well. In fact someone recently landed themself jail time for putting a working proof of concept paper boarding pass generator on the web (can’t find it on Google at the moment). There’s nothing about digital that makes it more or less susceptible to fraud.

36
Stephen says:
January 06, 05h

Dave,

This was a great experiment to read up on. I recently encountered some trouble myself at the airport when coming back from Las Vegas, NV about a month ago. When I tried checking in the person helping me could not find my information anywhere. At first I began to panic since I did not have anything printed out in paper as to what my flight information was. Luckily I had some smart friends who told me to look through my blackberry and find my info via email. Its not quite the same situation you were in, but it still goes to show you how much technology and PDA’s are making life easier. Look forward to future trials and tribulations.

Stephen

37
January 06, 13h

I recently flew Continental out of EWR and had the option to use a mobile boarding pass - essentially a webpage with a semacode barcode thingy which you display on your iPhone or other device.

Seemed to work quite well (it got me on the plane), though at the initial TSA checkpoint the woman needed to ask a colleague what to do with it - they obviously don’t get many folks using them.

Also, when passing thru the metal detector where you are required to show a boarding pass, it adds a bit of explaining to the process - “Its in my coat… in the tray… here… on the phone..”

38
January 15, 10h

Sounds like it’s getting better. Early 2008 when Air Canada announced paperless boarding via blackberries at YVR and YYA security refused to accept (“union won’t allow training for this” was the regular excuse) and the scanners didn’t exist at the gates for the QT code.

To be expected it will take a while to change the check in norms and work out the technical kinks, airports and airlines are horrendously complicated systems, but hopefully they will make this leap in the next couple years. Really is nice checking in and getting boarding pass while in the back of the taxi en route.

Next step hopefully will be real time bag tracking, FEDEx style, as you go through your journey.