As I approached the TSA agent at O’Hare International Airport on a recent Saturday, I did the strangest thing. I handed her my cell phone.
“Oh, you have one of those,” she said, raising an eyebrow. “I just had my first one yesterday.”
To get past security and onto the American Airlines plane bound for Los Angeles, all I needed was my cell phone and, more important, the mobile boarding pass on its screen.
It worked like this: When checking my flight online the day before, I was given three options. I could print my boarding pass right then, print it later or have a link e-mailed to me that would summon a two-dimensional boarding pass to my cell phone’s screen.
The technology, still in the testing phase, has been spearheaded by the International Air Transportation Association, an industry trade group. Though experts say mobile boarding passes could eventually become standard, for now they are a luxury. Steve Lott, an IATA spokesman, said the person most likely to use the mobile boarding pass is a business traveler who is not checking bags.
Seventeen airlines use the mobile boarding pass, including five American carriers: American, Alaska, Continental, Delta and Northwest.
Where the feature can be used varies; American Airlines passengers, for instance, can use mobile boarding only on flights out of Chicago, Los Angeles, Orange County, Minneapolis, Las Vegas and Atlanta.
When I first tried the mobile boarding pass, the TSA agent waved my cell phone over the scanner, and there was silence.
“Why isn’t it working?” she said.
I noticed a fraction of the 2D bar code hovered below the screen, so I scrolled it into full view and handed the phone back over. Success!
To board the plane, I handed over my phone again at the gate.
“Do you know how many of these actually work?” the woman there said, laughing. “A handful.”
American Airlines spokesman Billy Sanez acknowledged that the boarding pass can falter.
“When you have a beta test like this, you’ll see sometimes the system isn’t available,” he said. “We can always reprint a boarding pass.”
Which is a good thing, because when I tried it again for a flight to Washington, D.C., a few weeks later, I got an error message. The service was down.