Will paper boarding passes disappear too soon?

by Janice Hough on October 24, 2012

Air Canada Electronic Boarding Pass
It doesn’t seem that long ago that checking in for an airline flight and printing a boarding pass at home or at a hotel was a novelty. Now, some airlines even penalize passengers who don’t check in online, often with higher baggage fees, but in the case of low-cost carriers, sometimes with a flat fee at the airport.

One problem: Electronic boarding passes still are not totally glitch-free.

One problem with advance check-in, however, has been printing a boarding pass from the road. Increasingly, hotels have been setting up printers for their clients, although the airlines in turn are encouraging mobile boarding passes, sent directly to smart phones.

Now, certainly a mobile boarding pass is a greener alternative, and I have to wonder, how long until airlines make them the default option? United Airlines, for example, already automatically offers a mobile phone check-in option for return flights when passengers check in for the outbound.

However, the phone option is a long way from perfect, and that’s even before considering the possibility of a lost or stolen phone.

On a recent trip from Dulles, I had a mobile boarding pass, but my phone had a hard time getting consistent signal; eventually, I chose to wait in line to print a paper pass. It took several minutes, but turned out to be a good decision, because one of the two TSA lines was having trouble with their scanner. I watched a woman spend at least a few minutes trying to get her electronic boarding pass scanned. (She and the TSA agent were still working on it when I passed through the other line.)

Another client called this week after sending a boarding pass to his phone, but was told there was a problem with a barcode and sent back to the check-in counter. Fortunately, he was at the airport early and had plenty of time to return with a paper boarding pass.

Plus, more than one person has told me of losing phone battery power at the airport, thus rendering their boarding pass useless. (This last problem might be increasing, as the newer, faster phones often have shorter battery life.)

Personally, when I can get a printed boarding pass, I do. It seems simpler. Would I pay more for one, though? That’s a tougher question. I do have a feeling that it won’t be too long until some airline decides to find out.

As always, I would love to hear additional comments and stories from Consumer Traveler readers.

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  • Anonymous

    A lot of people do not have or can afford a smartphone. I cannot see why a traveler should be forced to have one. The current solution is simple, why change? I remember during 9/11, the phones did not even work here. The way I understand it, the airline is supposed to give me a boarding pass when I check in. My responsibility is to check in on time, not to print a boarding pass or have a smartphone phone that can receive and display one.

  • Anonymous

    “Personally, when I can get a printed boarding pass, I do. It seems simpler. ”

    ‘Cause there’s too many trees?

  • Anonymous

    Last I checked, silicon is not renewable. But my paper boarding passes get thrown in the recycling bin – not everyone recycles their smartphones.

  • Anonymous

    Seriously? That’s your argument? Here’s the debunking: You’re going to have your smartphone anyway, so …

    Smartphone + paper (that get’s recycled) = the environmental impact of the smartphone PLUS unnecessary energy and water use in paper production, transport, and recycling

    Smartphone alone = just the environmental impact of the smartphone (which, as previously stated, you’re going to have anyway)

    And if you’re recycling paper, but not recycling electronics, there’s significant room for you to be a better person.

  • Anonymous

    There’s also the issue of the airports. We have family in Central New York, and fly in and out of SYR once or twice a year. Right now, the security checkpoints are very low-tech. If you have an electronic boarding pass, you are sent back to the counter to get a paper one. Since they can’t scan an electronic boarding pass, they can’t sign off on it.

    I don’t have a smartphone, but I do have an iPod Touch. Technically, I could use it to get a boarding pass, but I don’t read e-mail on it anymore (iOS security being as horrible as it is), so that’s an option of last resort for me.

    The one and only time I tried getting my boarding pass on my older iPod Touch a few years ago – when it was first offered – I found that even though I had downloaded the e-mail I still needed to be on the Internet to pull the barcode up. And since the airport didn’t have free WiFi, I would have had to have paid the insane airport WiFi price for a 5 second interaction. Twice, actually, because I got to the airport 2 hours before the flight, and at the time, I had to buy the WiFi in one-hour chunks. (And it’s not like it worked well outside of the secure area anyway.) So I went to a kiosk and had a paper pass printed, which meant I didn’t have to worry about connectivity or power issues.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t have a smartphone. I have an iPod Touch which I don’t use to check e-mail (or social media – too many security holes in iOS).

    And I do recycle my electronics. I’m saying other people don’t.

  • Anonymous

    So your previous comments about electronics recycling were irrelevant and a waste of everyone’s time. Got it.

  • Anonymous

    If you say so.

  • Anonymous

    Joe are you too close to the trees that you can’t see the forest :-) Think about how much pollution that “useless” trip to Mexico is causing.

  • Anonymous

    And then there are those airports in foreign countries that demand to see a ticket (or something that looks like one) BEFORE they let you in an airport.

    Every time I use online check in for an INTERNATIONAL flight, when I check in my luggage they print NEW boarding passes. Why bother?

    Finally, the number 1 crime here in NYC is grabbing an iPhone. So I guess they will take your boarding pass, too.

  • Anonymous

    There are two separate issues here Tony — (1) the choices we make and (2) how wasteful we are in the context of those choices.

    The trip to Mexico (which I assume is just an example since you don’t know me and I’m not planning any such trip) is a choice. It is both sensible and decent to consider those choices — but the moral balance depends on many variables and it is hard to find certainty.

    But after the choice is made to (for example) visit Mexico, one should consider it an OBLIGATION to be as environmentally conscious as possible in the context of that choice. Part of that obligation should be to avoid printing on paper when an easy alternative is available.

  • Sam

    Joe, I’m so excited to tell you that I don’t recycle at all! I live in an area with no recycle bins, so everything goes to the landfill. Have a nice day! heh heh heh

  • Anonymous

    When I worked at FedEx (a pioneer at using barcodes for tracking) many moons ago one of my jobs called for testing 1D (one dimensional) barcodes in the field, customer sites, airport ramps, and sort facilities. One concern would be the scan failure rate (and mind you, we used very good label printers in the first place). To plan for failure, you need to print (or display) human readable [redundant] information near the barcode.

    Today the barcode reader must be able to read a more complex 2D (i.e. QR) code on a mobile display screen AND THEN decode it to display the name of the passenger so the TSA agent can compare it with the passport or driver’s license. Since barcode readers can fail, then human readable information MUST be displayed with it as well.

    So the TSA agent either needs to read the display on your smartphone (hopefully not drop or grab it) or they must scan the 2D code off your smartphone and then look at their own scanner’s display BEFORE they can compare the names. Wow, that is bizarre since a very simple printed boarding pass could accomplish the same much faster and easier. This is technology without progress.

  • Anonymous

    We have two phones, but only one phone that can be used for checking in. However, checking more than one person in with it is a PITA so we print out our boarding passes instead which gets us through much faster and doesn’t hold up everyone else. We then also have proof of traveling when needing to get those missing ff miles.
    I’ll take paper recycling over electronic waste any day.

  • AKFlyer

    Professional environmentalist here — and debate over the rather small piece of paper that is a hard copy boarding pass is, in a word, silly. If you are going to argue about that, you also need to chide flight attendants for handing out a new paper napkin every time they give you something to drink on a long flight. Or rental car contracts in triplicate. And you need to lose weight, because every extra pound of fat takes lots of extra aviation fuel to transport hundreds-thousands of miles. And stop using so much TP or making the paper towel dispenser in the public bathroom cough up several extra sheets.

    I have a smartphone and my airport takes electronic boarding passes. The real reason I opt for paper — even on the road (I print from an airport kiosk) — is that I want a solid claim to my particular seat when it comes to double booking mistakes. Or just when dealing with fellow passengers who sit down in the wrong seat (mine) and then try to persuade me to “just sit in the other seat.” Said other seat is inevitably a middle v. aisle, or aisle v. window (I prefer the latter on overnight flights).

  • LivedinItaly

    All airports would have to be set-up to accept/scan a mobile boarding pass. I know that at least one of four airlines at our little regional airport does not have the capability to scan a mobile boarding pass while another tears off part of the boarding pass to manually enter the passengers.

  • http://gspirits.com/ Zod

    I have a top of the line Smartphone with a super AMOLED screen that is 5.3 inches in size, I have *NEVER* gotten a barcode to scan consistently! I tried one of those apps that allow you to enter your affinity cards into your phone and then just pull up that store’s affinity barcode when you make a purchase, but I’ve never been able to get the POS scanner to scan my phone. On a recent trip to Hawaii, I tried a barcode in PDF and native from the airline, and neither scanned. Apparently there is some issue about some phones being too bright (AMOLEDs are notorious for this) . But it’s too much of a hassle to futz around with the phone when a paper boarding pass scans every time with no hassle.. I *LOVE* technology, it’s my life, but in this case, a paper pass is better!

  • Pat

    On our last flight (SFO-MIA on America) we printed a paper boarding pass at home, then had to print in again at the kiosk and then was given another one when we turned in our luggage. Stood in 3 lines, had our luggage weighed twice, spent 45 minutes checking before going to TSA

  • Anonymous

    Could be an issue of REFLECTANCE of dark and light details (pixels).

  • Anonymous

    Don’t feel bad since I don’t have an iPhone or an iPod or an iPad. What for since (if lucky) I barely get one bar of AT&T or Verizon signal at home. I still use a Nokia made in Finland phone but it has a native SIP (VoIP) client so with wifi I can reach my VoIP servers anywhere in the world. It is too ugly to steal :-) So maybe I am the Ludite in the crowd. That way I have less to recycle.

  • Anonymous

    Is that because of RyanAir?

  • http://www.facebook.com/shannonbmurphy Shannon Bradley Murphy

    Yes, and as soon as your QR code is scanned at the airport, your seat assignment visually disappears. I admit that I cannot remember my seat assignment from flight to flight, but I have had to prove my seat with my boarding pass on several occasions as the airline had indeed double booked it.

  • Rob

    I had a problem with an AA boarding pass recently. The flight didn’t leave on time, and I was using my phone for other things until the flight departed. When the flight was called and I went to pull up the boarding pass, my phone’s browser needed to refresh the page, but because the flight was past its scheduled departure time, the AA web site refused to serve it. Thankfully the gate agent was efficient and accommodating and got me through with my ID and seat assignment.

  • Anonymous

    As long as people have questions or issues and phones are lost, stolen, broken, need charging, etc., I suggest paper boarding passes.

  • mjhooper

    The more comments, the more problems revealed. I have a free ($50 rebate) phone. Don’t want my life ruled by electronics and dont want to waste my life doing the things other people once did for me/us. Tasks that would provide jobs for many people, such as printing out boarding passe and making the reservations in the first place. I’m sick of being the secretary and maid-of-all-work when the companies i deal with won’t do the parts of our transactions they once did. Just because technology is out there doesn’t mean we all want, need, or can afford it. Give me paper every time, and not printed with my toner and not on my paper. Just keep squeezing us and our wallets.

  • James Penrose

    I use a 7 year old flip phone and have no particular intention of using a smart phone any time soon given what the carriers charge for that little whimsey on a monthly basis.

    I notice many airlines now have check in kiosks or print stations where you can print a boarding pass even at the airport, a very nice idea as watching a TSA “officer” trying to use their scanners is a lot like watching a chimpanzee trying to work a laptop computer except the TSA ape (usually) won’t try and put it in his or her mouth.) Rhe record in my observation was fifteen minutes and counting while three TSA types sweated and strained with one woman’s smart phone boarding pass, I finished the entire process and had moved on towards my gate while this woman stood there, waiting patiently as they did everything but throw animal femurs at the mysterious object in front of them.

    Most of their scanners aren’t actually hooked up to anything and only check to see if the bar code gives the same info as the printed part since it is a well known fact that terrorists are completely incapable of getting those two parts to agree.

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