December 11, 2019

Practical Traveler: Testing E-Boarding Passes

I recently tried a mobile boarding pass for the first time on a Delta flight out of La Guardia Airport, and had no problems checking in or getting through security and onto the plane. But it’s not yet a foolproof way to travel, so here are some things I learned from my test drive, as well as feedback from fliers who have used e-boarding passes many times.

Who offers e-boarding?

American, Delta, Continental and United are the biggest e-boarding champions, offering this option to travelers departing from at least 75 airports. Alaska Airlines has introduced it at about 50 airports, and US Airways in nearly 20 cities. JetBlue, Southwest and Virgin America have not yet embraced mobile boarding.

The airlines list e-boarding cities on their Web sites — mostly cities with larger airports — but small airports are getting on board as the Transportation Security Administration and the airlines install equipment to scan travelers’ handheld devices. When you check in, you’ll see the mobile boarding pass option only if it’s available for your departure city — and your stopover city, if you’re making a connection.

How does it work?

Most carriers offer two ways to get an e-boarding pass: you can choose to have one sent to your mobile device (via e-mail or text message) when you check in online, or you can use an airline app to check in and your boarding pass will appear within the application. The airlines say this option works with most Web-enabled smartphones and iPads, but if your device is finicky stick with paper.

When you get to the airport, you’ll have to navigate through your e-mail or the airline app to display the boarding pass bar code on your screen so it can be scanned by a security agent and then again at your gate.

Using the Delta app on my iPhone, I found it was a little tricky to make sure that my boarding pass was visible and that my phone didn’t go to sleep just as I approached the agent. Some travelers find that security or airline staff members still get flustered — or annoyed — by the technology.

Robert Costello, a Delta frequent flier who often uses e-boarding passes, said he once had to walk to a different security checkpoint because the boarding pass reader wasn’t working at his lane, but he and other travelers say these glitches have tapered off as the technology has become more widespread.

He also suggested a way to avoid navigating through an e-mail folder or app to retrieve your boarding pass, which can be slow if there’s a poor cell signal: use your phone to take a picture of the boarding pass screen ahead of time and show that image instead.

“On an iPhone, it’s just a matter of pushing the button at the top of the phone and the home button together,” he said. “I’ve found if I have a picture, that’s the fastest thing.” (Check your manual for information on how to do that with other smartphones.)

Turning up your screen’s brightness and carrying a charger with you are other useful tips — the latter in case your battery runs out during a delay and you need to find an outlet at the gate.

Why bother?

Mr. Costello said he prefers e-boarding passes because his phone is always at hand, whereas he used to have to rummage around in his pockets or bag to find a paper boarding pass, which is also more likely to get wrinkled or lost.

Another advantage of the electronic option is that travelers don’t always have access to a printer, so choosing a mobile boarding pass eliminates the hassle of stopping at a kiosk at the airport. However minimally, it also eliminates paper from the garbage stream.

Are there any drawbacks?

The most obvious risk with mobile boarding is that if your phone’s battery dies or there are any problems reading your e-boarding pass, you’ll have to print one at a kiosk or ticket counter, and that could delay your trip if you’re running late.

Using a mobile boarding pass can also be a challenge if you’re traveling with multiple people in one reservation. US Airways and Continental offer e-boarding only if there’s one person in the reservation; with other airlines, each person can check in online and have a boarding pass sent to his or her phone. But most airline apps don’t handle multiple boarding passes, and even when it’s possible, it can take some juggling to manage several passes on one device.

Michael Rubiano, a United elite flyer, said that when traveling with his wife and children, he has managed to have multiple e-boarding passes open in different windows on his smartphone’s browser. “But it’s kind of a pain,” he said. “And for most people, especially families not used to traveling frequently, it’s not really a practical option.”

He and other frequent fliers mentioned another concern: getting credit for missing miles without having a printed boarding pass to prove you were on a flight.

“I’m reluctant to use mobile boarding passes on an airline where I’ve had a problem with frequent flier miles posting on time and accurately,” said Kyle Raccio, who usually chooses a mobile boarding pass but opts for a print version when flying Continental.

Another solution is to save a digital copy of your e-boarding pass (especially if you check in using an app, because the pass typically disappears after your flight), or print a copy as a backup, which I did for my flight.

While that sort of defeats the purpose of going mobile, it can offer peace of mind as the airlines work out the kinks in what is still a developing technology.

“There are definitely pluses and minuses with mobile boarding,” Mr. Raccio said. “Hopefully, those minuses will be looked at and improved for travelers.”

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The Paperless Cockpit

But instead of carrying all that paperwork, a growing number of pilots are carrying a 1.5 pound iPad.

The Federal Aviation Administration has authorized a handful of commercial and charter carriers to use the tablet computer as a so-called electronic flight bag. Private pilots, too, are now carrying iPads, which support hundreds of general aviation apps that simplify preflight planning and assist with in-flight operations.

“The iPad allows pilots to quickly and nimbly access information,” said Jim Freeman, a pilot and director of flight standards at Alaska Airlines, which has given iPads to all its pilots. “When you need to a make a decision in the cockpit, three to four minutes fumbling with paper is an eternity.”

Alaska Airlines received F.A.A. approval in May to permit its pilots to consult digital flight, systems and performance manuals on the iPad — cutting about 25 pounds of paper from each flight bag. The e-manuals include hyperlinks and color graphics to help pilots find information quickly and easily. And pilots do not have to go through the tedium of updating the manuals by swapping out old pages with new ones because updates are downloaded automatically.

In the next phase of what Alaska Airlines calls Operation Bye, Bye, Flight Bag, the carrier plans to petition the F.A.A. to use the iPad to read aeronautical charts, saving another five pounds of paper per pilot. Counting both the pilot and co-pilot, that would remove 60 pounds of paper from the cockpit — a significant savings not only in paper and printing costs but also in fuel because planes are that much lighter.

Because Apple’s tablet computer weighs less and is more compact than a laptop and its touch screen easier to manipulate, its introduction in 2010 made the move away from paper in the cockpit easier.

Switching to the iPad is also expected to reduce health care costs and absenteeism from shoulder and back injuries associated with hoisting heavy flight bags, said David Clark, pilot and manager of the connected aircraft program at American Airlines. “Cockpits are small, and lifting that thing up and over your seat causes damage, particularly when you consider a lot of pilots are over 40.”

American Airlines won F.A.A. approval last month for its pilots to use the iPad to read aeronautical charts. American received authorization last year to use the device instead of paper reference manuals. Executive Jet Management, a NetJets company owned by Berkshire Hathaway, received the F.A.A.’s permission in February for its pilots to read aeronautical charts on iPads.

Moreover, the F.A.A. said pilots at the two airlines would not have to shut off and store their iPads during taxiing, takeoff and landing because they had demonstrated that the devices would not impair the functioning of onboard electronics. Alaska Airlines pilots, like passengers, still have to put their iPads away during those critical phases of the flight.

“Each airline must submit a unique proposal on how they want to use the iPad and prove that both the device and software application are safe and effective for that proposed use,” said John W. McGraw, the F.A.A.’s deputy director of flight standards. Executive Jet Management, for example, had 55 pilots test the iPad on 10 types of aircraft to prove that it was reliable and that it would not interfere with flight instruments. The iPad was also subjected to rapid decompression at a simulated altitude of 51,000 feet.

Private and corporate pilots, however, do not have to go through the same approval process. According to F.A.A. regulations, they are responsible for determining what technologies are safe and appropriate for use in the cockpit. As a result, iPads are quickly becoming essential tools in planes ranging from Gulf Stream G650s to Piper Vagabonds.

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