This past year, I have been flying quite often on United Airlines. My latest trip was between Dulles International Airport outside Washington, DC and the Greater Rochester International Airport in New York. The first leg of the trip was pretty uneventful, except for the usual hassle of going through airport security.
Like I suspect most of you, I print my boarding pass on my home computer before going to the airport. Recently, however, I have also been using the mobile phone boarding pass service that United provides. When you get to the point of printing out your boarding pass, United now offers to send your smartphone an email that has a link to a barcode image of your boarding pass. You "simply" scan that image on your phone on readers at both security and at the boarding gate. Not all airports where United flies have the capability, but many do.
I say "simply" above for several reasons. It turns out that many folks at both the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and at United agents are stilling learning the technology, so depending on the airport, there can be hiccups.
Second, the technology is supposed to eliminate the need for carrying paper boarding passes, but I still feel the need to keep a copy of my printed boarding pass handy, just in case my phone decides to die or I can't get a good signal.
In addition, sometimes the local TSA rule defeats the paperless objective as well. For instance, when using my smartphone boarding pass at Dulles last week, I had to accompany the TSA agent who was checking boarding passes and identification to the electronic scanner, which was located about 25 feet away. Why it wasn't situated where he was sitting like at other airports, wasn't explained.
After my id was checked and my boarding pass was scanned (lay it flat in the right direction and don't move it around like when using a supermarket scanner), the TSA agent then handed me a stamped and initialed slip of paper to show to the TSA folks manning the x-ray machines and metal detectors that I was processed properly.
It would have been simpler and faster to use my paper copy of my boarding pass.
Anyway, on the trip from Rochester back to Dulles, I didn't have to worry about using my mobile boarding pass, since they don't have the reader technology at that airport yet. However, I did get to go through one of those new full body scanners. I wasn't particularly embarrassed about it, but I was a bit annoyed that you have to wait around for the results to come back from whoever is reviewing the images backstage someplace. It probably wasn't more than 20 - 30 seconds, but it seemed much longer.
It also meant that I couldn't really keep a close eye on my attaché case and travel bag as they came out of the x-ray machine, which now held my wallet and passport along with my netbook. BTW, make sure you have pants that don't fall down when you take off your belt and empty everything from your pockets, which you are required to do.
I happened to be flying back to Dulles during a period of rather stormy weather in both the Midwest and East Coast, so my flight was delayed. I learned how much it was delayed through a text message from United to my phone on the way to the airport.
When I print out my boarding pass, I also sign up for automatic flight status notification that United offers via voice, emails and or text messages. This service has helped me numerous times to make other arrangements when traveling.
Anyway, the flight was delayed several times during the course of the evening, and each time I received an update message. It so happened that I received one of the text messages while I was talking to a United ramp supervisor who had been helping the United gate attendants make arrangements for other United passengers whose plane was canceled or delayed so much they couldn't make their next connection. As I was pulling out my phone to check the message, the supervisor said that it must be the text message he just sent out.
I was a bit surprised. I thought that text message updates of United flight information came from its central flight information system. The supervisor explained to me that when a United flight is on time, the central system sends that information out. However, if a flight is subsequently delayed, then it is the United personnel at the airport who send the updated flight information out.
I noticed that the flight status board near the boarding gate had not been updated with the latest information I had just received. When I asked about it, the supervisor laughed and said he hadn't updated the status board yet because he had to do that from a different location. He added that the text message information was usually the most up to date.
I should mention that the United gate agents and ramp personnel at Rochester airport were some of the most helpful and informative I have ever met, especially given the chaos of delayed and canceled flights they were dealing with that night. A rare event in today's highly stressful flying environment, I'm afraid.
My flight eventually arrived at Dulles and I made it home a few hours later than expected. But at least I got to meet the person behind the flight status text messages I received that evening. In this day of impersonal smart machines and smart phones where information just "appears" at your fingertips, you don't get to do that too often
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.