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?
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.
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.
: 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.
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.