Mobile Boarding Passes Don't Fly


By Samuel Greengard

Airports and airlines offer what seems to be the perfect confluence of poorly implemented technology and really bad business processes.

Case in point: The day before boarding a recent flight from Newark to Portland, Ore., I received the standard email inviting me to check in online. Figuring I might actually save some time at the airport, I navigated to the United Airlines mobile app on my iPhone. I looked for an option to download a mobile boarding pass. No luck. So, I selected the email option and prepaid the bag fee.

The boarding pass, complete with PDF and barcode, immediately landed in my inbox. Unfortunately, it didn't explain whether I could use the barcode in the PDF as a mobile boarding pass or if I had to print the document.

But the email did beckon with a link for a mobile boarding pass. This sent me to a mobile Website that looked remarkably like the iPhone app. Once again, there wasn't an option for receiving a mobile boarding pass. I gave up and figured I would deal with everything at the airport.

Things got worse the next day. After wasting 15 minutes trying to find the bag drop amid the snaking lines, chaos and lack of signage at Newark Airport and United check-in, I finally handed over my luggage and asked an agent whether my PDF would serve as a legitimate boarding pass or if I needed to print one. She reassured me that the barcode would work just fine.

I headed to the security checkpoint. There, I was redirected to another security checkpoint ... which sent me back to the original one. Then I was informed that I didn't have a valid mobile boarding pass. At this point, I was forced to trudge downstairs to a kiosk to print the boarding pass.

Tick, tick, tick. I had now burned nearly 45 minutes. Good thing I arrived at the airport really early.

Here's a suggestion for airlines: If you're going to offer mobile boarding passes, make it possible to actually obtain and use them. Don't send emails with links that work at some airports or for some flights but not others. Build an IT system smart enough to recognize the customer's airport and flight and offer only the appropriate options.

And here's a suggestion for all businesses: Integrate online technology with real-world processes. When there's no advantage to using an electronic system-- and it actually lengthens what should have been a 10-minute task into 45 minutes or an hour--you're training customers to cling to the old, clunky, more expensive way of doing things. It's tough enough to change human behavior without tossing tacks on the asphalt.

In the future, I'll probably stick with the standard airport kiosk. It's faster--and less aggravating.