Like a good airline passenger, I normally do. But with web checkin, along with electronically receiving the boarding pass also comes a token more responsibility, like knowing the gate and when to be there.
This past Sunday, I had a direct flight with Avianca from Medellin to New York. I’ve taken that 5-hour flight many times over the years. It leaves close to midnight and arrives to JFK about 5 am. It’s a tough red-eye because at most, you might get 4 hours of sleep if you are lucky and the sleep gods are with you, nodding off shortly after takeoff (to capture those few inches of seat recline) and waking up upon decent, when the lights come on and announcements blare from the overhead speakers. To get those 4 hours, you’ll need to ignore the dinner service which happens about one hour into the flight, filled with lip-smackin noise and smells from a hot food cart. If you can’t sleep through requests of “beef or chicken” then your optimal sleep time is no better than 3 hours.
I’ve been doing the web checkin thing for as long as airlines have offered them. It’s a convenience, allowing you a little more leeway arriving to the airport with less time. It’s also a protection from getting bumped from the flight. You are already checked in. All you’ve got to do is show up at the gate in time for boarding.
Most airlines’ boarding passes show boarding times in the vicinity of one hour prior to actual flight time. If the flight time is 8:30, boarding time might show 7:30. Depending on the route, airlines want you at the gate at least 45 minutes ahead of flight time. It’s certainly not an easy business to run, getting all the passengers to the gate on-time when there are influences beyond the airline’s control (i.e., airport security and passengers with limited time clue).
After a power-walk along the ciclovia Sunday morning and during coffee-time, I checked in online for the flight later that evening. I printed and tucked away my boarding pass. Since the flight time was 11:45 pm, I programed plenty of time to have dinner later, followed by a leisurely bus trip to the airport (the bus is comfortable and good for a pre-flight snooze). As I was walking down the street after dinner around 7:30 pm, luggage in tow, the boarding pass I had printed earlier flashed to my mind’s eye and I saw the time 20:30. What an odd time, I thought. I stopped, pulled the boarding pass out of my pocket and sure enough, the boarding time showed 20:30. (The boarding pass does not show flight time.) What the hell? I was (almost) sure the flight was 11:45 pm, which meant 23:45. Why was the boarding time showing 3 hours and 15 minutes prior to flight time? That didn’t make sense. Oh shit, they must have changed the flight time and I didn’t realize it. With boarding starting in one hour, the airport 45 minutes away by car, I still had to drop off a checked bag and pass through security and immigration. I was suddenly having flashes of getting bumped and dealing with a 24 hour delay, at best. Without wasting another second, I hailed a taxi and told the driver to rush me to the airport.
On the way to the airport, I called the airlines to tell them I was on the way (for whatever good that would have done). They told me, “no problem, Mr. Spaghetti, the flight is at 11:45 pm.” “But,” I told them, “there must be some mistake, my boarding pass shows a boarding time of 8:30 pm.” “No,” he said, “that is a suggested time for people to get to the airport.” What? How very bogus and wrong, I was thinking. I was both relieved and upset. When I arrived to the bag drop/checkin counter, I confronted the airline personnel again about the bogus time. Although they tried to paint it differently, the reply was the same, to trick passengers into arriving to the airport early. How can they do this, I thought. This is an airline boarding pass, not a casual informational document. This was a document identifying me, allows me passage on the plane, and showing my seat number. Boarding time means time at gate.
The result was I spent double the cost to get to the airport, arrived earlier than I wanted, and took on some self-induced stress. Who’s fault was it? My own, of course. I should have looked at the boarding pass earlier and confirmed the boarding time was bogus. But it wasn’t always a bogus time they printed. Last year’s boarding time for the same flight showed the normal one hour prior. What prompted them to start the trickery? After more investigation, I still don’t have a good answer.
The last time I missed an international flight due to a boarding pass was last year traveling (almost) from New York to India. I printed my boarding pass at home and didn’t read the small letters which said “this boarding pass requires an additional hard copy airline boarding pass from the ticket counter.” When I headed through security they would not let me through because I had a web checkin boarding pass (which I used for other airlines on other intl flights) and not a ticket counter boarding pass. By the time I got back to the ticket counter, it was closed. I had time to get to the gate one hour prior to my flight, but because I could not get through security, I was bumped off the flight due to the boarding pass snafu. That should have taught me to always scan boarding passes for fine print and bogus information.
What Avianca did was not nice. A suggested time to be at the airport is a much different time than “boarding time.” Still, knowing the details was in my lap, where they should have been. I didn’t follow my own good advice of: thoroughly checking the boarding pass.