Friday, May 15, 2009

Skepticism, Mexican Standoffs, and Electronic Boarding Passes

I am a traveler.  Not your average traveler either.  I am an inquisitive traveler – dare I say a “professional” traveler.  A traveler always looking for new ways to enhance my journeys whether they are for business or pleasure, so at the beginning of my most recent trip when I went online at to check-in, I was surprised to see an advertisement about the ability use your PDA or Smartphone as your boarding pass. 

When I saw this my thoughts immediately shifted to my Nokia E61i as I wondered if this new capability – nay opportunity – Delta was touting on their web site was real, would even work in the current travel environment and how the heck I would get through the TSA security screening process using my PDA.  Naturally I decided to test out the system and attempt my first paperless trip. 

First off I went to on my Smartphone and checked into my flight.  The interface Delta provides is simple and familiar to those that travel with them often.  Simply select “Check-in”, enter your SkyMiles number, pin, select the options such as bags to check and it is off to the races.  The next thing you see is a boarding pass with a strange looking bar code and all the information you would need to find your flight.  Now, let the fun begin! 

When this maverick of travel entered the doors of the South Terminal there was a Mexican standoff with the agent standing in the door.  She had no idea about paperless boarding passes.  I decided to head problems off at the pass and got a paper ticket from the kiosk as backup.  Afterwards I approached my endearing nemesis and bantered with her about “electronic boarding passes”.  I decided to educate her by showing her my own and she was impressed.  At the same time my expectations dropped down to about the same level I have for airplane food. 

Now I was approaching the South Security Checkpoint at Hartsfield thinking in my mind I’d have a better chance of winning at Keno than having anyone even know what the heck I was trying to do with my new fangled technology – let alone a government employee.  My confidence plunged to a new low.  As I approached the first TSA agent I handed her my identification and my PDA, she immediately said, “I hate these things” – darn government employees I thought to myself, but wait – she quickly handed me back my Nokia and requested I scan the barcode over a black box with a red light just to her left.  I did and nothing happened.  She then directed me to hold it lower, which really meant closer.  Ping, the device scanned the barcode from my PDA, popped up my name and she said “have a nice day Mr. Meadows.”  Imagine my surprise – it had worked.  

My skepticism began to fade as I headed to the Crown Room ready to have a celebratory drink before my flight.  Next thing I knew my flight was boarding and I moved like O.J. through the teaming crowds to my gate.  I stepped to the boarding agent with my “pass” in hand.  I showed it to her and she directed me to scan it.   I did, but this time it didn’t work.  Well technically it did work because I had been upgraded and it alerted the agent that they had already printed out a new paper ticket for me.  Score one for Delta!  I boarded the flight content and impressed that the system had worked, the processes to allow it work had been modified, and the people I encountered where it mattered knew in advance about the system and how to operate it.  

With my skepticism abated I tried the system again, this time with mixed results in Las Vegas.  At security the TSA agent hadn’t turned on the scanner for the electronic boarding pass – oops!  Once she figured out what the power button was for the system booted quickly and worked as it should allowing me to pass quicker than my papered counterparts.  At the gate the electronic boarding pass did not work and I gave my name and seat number to the boarding agent without incident – again I was upgraded.  Score two for Delta!! 

Overall my experience with the new system was actually much better than I anticipated.  I would give it a “C” only because of my experience in Las Vegas with the TSA not being prepared to accept it and the gate not being equipped to use it.  

Would I do it again?  Absolutely – and I think within the next 3 years this innovative program that utilizes the technology most savvy travelers already consider common for personal and business communications will become so ubiquitous the paper ticket will become obsolete.  So obsolete that airlines will expand their ala carte pricing models for things like baggage and fuel surcharges to include providing us a paper ticket.  Okay, that is a joke – but tell me you couldn’t envision it? 

In closing, kudos to Delta for having the chutzpah and foresight to transform the travel experience once again in a positive way – and for the upgrades.  Now if we could just convince them to provide their new Wi-Fi service on all flights for free! 

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