Electronic Boarding Pass Gives Road Warriors Another Option

Known variously as e-pass, electronic boarding passes or mobile passes, these paper boarding pass equivalents are acceptable at certain airports and airlines throughout the U.S. Like regular advance check-in, travelers can get their electronic boarding pass online up to 24 hours in advance, choose a seat and have the boarding pass delivered electronically to their mobile phone or PDA. The idea is that the e-pass should work on any mobile phone or PDA that can receive email. The downloaded e-pass can be scanned directly at the airport to allow passage through security and boarding at the gate.

The most likely people to use an e-pass are travelers who carry a PDA like the Blackberry. On the road, they want to get assigned seats and flight confirmation using online check-in. Since hotel rooms don’t have printers, a traveler can elect to have the boarding pass emailed their PDA. Being able to check-in electronically and get an e-pass is also convenient from bus, car or taxi, or in an emergency. But most travelers who use e-pass should still prefer to print a paper boarding pass as backup, if they can, just in case the electronic boarding pass doesn’t scan at the airport.

Agents Get Busy With New Procedures

A traveler with an e-pass arrives with the electronic boarding pass and reservation on their mobile device and can go straight to the security checkpoints. Secondary ID like a driver’s license or passport is still required. Instead of handing a paper pass to TSA security agents at airport security, a passenger shows the e-pass image on the screen of the mobile device.

When it’s time to go through the TSA checkpoint, the screener scans the mobile device with a handheld scanner. The scanner beeps when it recognizes the e-pass. At that point, the TSA screener can see the passenger name and flight information on the scanner. They next look at the passenger’s physical ID and compare it with the electronic boarding pass information on the scanner.

When it’s time to board, passengers queue up to the boarding checkpoint and point the mobile device image into another scanner. The scanner again beeps an all-clear signal, and the agent allows the passenger to board.

Passenger Feedback Is Mixed

The success rate of using the e-pass on mobile phones is mixed, because most mobile phones have a low screen resolution versus PDAs. As a result, there can be problems on mobile phones, with the scanners not scanning correctly at security and boarding.

There can also be hitches in procedures. With paper boarding passes, the passenger shows the TSA agent the pass before entering the metal detector. But since the e-pass is on a mobile device, it goes through the x-ray machine. So what happens when a screener asks to see a boarding pass? Some agents just let the passenger through. Other screeners require that the passenger get a token from the TSA agents who are examining the carry-on luggage.

Not all airlines offer the e-pass and not all e-passes display passenger seat assignments. Rules about advance check-in vary considerably, although most airlines allow online check-in 24 hours prior to departure. Continental has set up a webpage where a passenger can login and get the boarding pass image. iPhone users report that this works well. Other airlines email the image, so a passenger needs to know where email attachments are stored the mobile device, and then open up the boarding pass image on the screen.

Technology Meets International Standards

The Transportation Security Administration has been testing the e-pass system since 2007 at number of airports throughout the country. Nationwide expansion is now underway. Once e-pass scanners are deployed nationwide, the TSA plans to track wait times using e-pass data collected at checkpoints. As a safety advantage for all passengers, the new technology reduces boarding pass fraud, provides enhanced security, and improves customer service to passengers, says the TSA and the airlines.

The International Air Transport Association anticipates that its 240 members will be saving about $500 million annually with electronic boarding. Currently the e-pass works only for U.S. domestic flights. Passengers flying from an airport that doesn’t handle the e-pass will still need a printed pass. International adoption is eventually expected. The TSA paperless boarding passes are consistent with the global standard in the International Air Transport Association for bar coding of passenger boarding passes.