At The Airport, Not All QR Codes Are Created Equal

Another day, another flight, another addition to the ever growing and increasingly arcane number of steps that you need to go through in order to get through an airport and actually take off on a plane. I’ve written before on the world of airport security, be it having your bags X-Rayed or searched and on engaging flight-safe mode on your mobile phone/tablet/e-book reader/laptop.

Last week, flying from London Heathrow to Berlin’s Tegel airport I found a new addition to the increasingly detached-from-reality world of airline security … the electronic boarding pass. In principle, the electronic boarding pass is a great idea. First introduced in 1999 by Alaska Airways, checking into your flight online and putting a QR code on a graphic of your boarding pass cuts down queueing and waiting at the airport. Some airlines either send you the boarding pass as an SMS message, as an email attachment or as a time limited web URL. Some airlines provide an app on your phone; British Airways falls into this category and their app covers Windows Phone 7, iOS, Android and Blackberry.

With this in mind, consider the following electronic boarding pass, taken from last week’s flight.

Berlin Boarding Pass - Original

This boarding pass gets checked three times between the time I arrive at the airport and the time my posterior makes contact with seat 11C. The first time is at security when the QR code gets scanned; if the QR code is valid, I’m granted access to the airside part of the terminal at Heathrow, but my passport isn’t checked so as long as the QR code says it’s valid, I’m through. The second time is at the gate. Again, the QR code is scanned and this time it’s cross checked with my passport; so not only is the boarding pass valid, but I can prove that the name on my passport and the name on the boarding pass matches. The third and final time, is when I actually board the plane and the cabin crew visually check that the boarding pass is actually for that flight.

Now consider this version of the boarding pass. The QR code is able to be scanned and it contains exactly the same information as the previous one. It will get me through the first two boarding pass checks but apparently it won’t allow me onto the aircraft. Why? When boarding last week’s flight the member of the cabin crew who checked my boarding pass told me she needed to “scroll your phone” and “check that your boarding pass isn’t a photo“. the underlying assertion here being that if I wasn’t using a boarding pass on BA’s own mobile app, I couldn’t board the flight.

Berlin Boarding Pass - Copy

If your eyes are crossing from concentration at this point, you’re not alone. I still haven’t been able to comprehend what the difference is between a valid QR code, which is itself a graphic image, in BA’s mobile app and a screen shot of the QR code, which is, err, a graphic image. I have an even harder time comprehending how this makes the theatre of airline security any safer for me or for my fellow passengers.

Written and posted from Theresa Avenue, Campbell, California (37.2654, -121.9643)

Written by Gary

Husband, Father, geotechnologist, map geek, coffee addict, Sci-fi fan, UNIX and Mac user.