The Fallacy of Electronic Boarding Passes

There has been a clear evolution in the boarding pass over the past 10 years…

Airport kiosk self check-in (late 1990s)
Online check in and printable boarding pass (early 2000s)
Mobile boarding pass (~2007)
Mobile boarding pass through airline app (past few years)

My home base is Toronto with travel mostly to the US. Frequent travellers between Canada and US usually sign up for Nexus (similar to Global Entry) where you use a kiosk to pass through customs. It also provides access to the a trusted traveller security screening that allows travellers to keep their shoes on (unlike in the US, however, trusted travellers still need to remove light jackets and laptops from bags).

There are several points where you need to show/scan your boarding pass in Toronto with Nexus transiting to the US:

- Entering the dedicated Nexus line
- Being verified at the end of the Nexus line
- Going through security screening
- Before entering the Nexus line
- Upon leaving the Nexus customs screening
- Upon boarding by the gate agent

There is also an additional scan if one uses any of the airport lounges (there are two in Terminal 1 Transborder in Toronto — Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge and Premium Plaza). So on a given outbound trip, the boarding pass might need to be scanned / shown up to eight times. More if you purchase from duty free.

The issue with the electronic boarding pass is that it is just one app / browser among the many others that I’d use during a transit. Standing in queue is especially boring and a great time to check time, email, send an SMS, or do something else “productive”. This creates a few issues with using the boarding pass:

- You need to find the app / web page after you unlock the device
- The webpage or app might need to reload and Internet can be slow / disconnected
- If your phone connects to free airport WiFi, it might require a sign in before loading the board pass
- The person checking the phone inevitably pushes something that exits the boarding pass window or app
- The screen will auto-rotate unless this is disabled
- You need to put down the device as you go through security screening

The sad truth is that a paper boarding pass is much more convenient than one you use on your device. The issue is that printers are such a pain. The other drawback of paper is losing it. It’d be great to have paper with an app version available if needed.

The fallacy is that the boarding pass is a visual representation of an electronic record. The same is true of an “electronic” boarding pass. It’s just on a screen instead of paper. The true verification happens through a physical ID. To accelerate transit, it’d be much faster to have an NFC based boarding pass with an app that runs in the background (so the app doesn’t need to be opened from the device to be tapped). Better yet, to enable RFID with a nearby scanner would allow passengers to walk through without five different people manning checkpoints along the route.

We’ll probably see more experiments with this in the next two years but airport security moves slowly (that’s true on many layers) and it might be a decade before we see fully automated systems.

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