Did You Know You Need to Print a Boarding Pass to Go Through Security and Get on a Plane?

Did you know that if you check in using American’s mobile app, and wish to use a mobile boarding pass, you have to pull it up prior to the start of boarding? That’s apparently “The infuriating rule American Airlines won’t tell you about until it’s too late”

Yesterday, I learned that American Airlines will throw you under the bus — er, plane — if you arrive at the airport after your scheduled boarding begins but before you have had a chance to load your digital boarding pass for the first time.

This exact scenario happened to me. The result? I got caught in a Twilight Zone of air travel, trapped between a TSA agent who needed to inspect my boarding pass and an airline that refused to give it to me. Helplessly, I had to watch my plane depart even though I still had 10 minutes (at least!) to make it to my gate. Unable to proceed any further, I was forced to abandon my place in line, get a standby ticket for the next flight to Dallas and spend the night on a sad cot listening to the sounds of linoleum being waxed under fluorescent lighting that never turned off, instead of making it home.

Leaving aside that no one actually ‘forced’ the author to ‘spend the night on a sad cot’, it’s likely no one is surprised that there’s a cutoff time for check-in. It’s a reasonable rule, in my opinion, so that seats assigned to people who aren’t going to show up for their flight may be given to others that are standing by and want to fly.

In fact American has a web page dedicated to it. For domestic flights you need to check in at least 45 minutes prior to departure.

You have several ways to get a boarding pass in time. For instance,

  • You can check in up to 24 hours in advance on the American Airlines website.

  • You can check in using their mobile app.

  • You can check in at an airport kiosk.

  • You can check in at a ticket counter (unlike Spirit Airlines, American will not charge you for a boarding pass printed by an agent).

In case any of this seems obscure, when you buy a ticket from American Airlines they send you an email that says:

You may check in and obtain your boarding pass for U.S. domestic electronic tickets within 24 hours of your flight time online at AA.com by using www.aa.com/checkin or at a Self-Service Check-In machine at the airport. Check-in options may be found at www.aa.com/options. For information regarding American Airlines checked baggage policies, please visit www.aa.com/baggageinfo.

Here’s what the author is actually complaining about. He says he checked in using American’s mobile app but never pulled up a boarding pass. But you have to pull up the boarding pass in advance.

The author posits “[m]aybe you’re in a rush and have only a few minutes in between meetings to deal with flights” and therefore have time to hit the check-in button, but no time to pull up a boarding pass on the mobile app. Or “[m]aybe your mobile Internet connection gets cut off” or “[m]aybe you’re just an idiot who delayed downloading it until later.”

As a result he “had to watch [his] plane depart even though [he] still had 10 minutes (at least!) to make it to [the] gate.”

Something tells me he’s not familiar with the rule about being on board 15 minutes prior to departure. Although he may have a legitimate beef about that, too: I can no longer find on the American Airlines website the requirement to

Arrive at the gate and be ready to board at least 15 minutes prior to scheduled departure

That used to be on the boarding process page and on the check-in and arrival times page. But it’s gone. And I can only see the statement “To better ensure an on-time departure, our goal is to close the jetbridge door 10 minutes prior to departure time.”

I don’t have a ton of sympathy for author Brian Fung. However I suspect no one reading will ever check in but not access their boarding pass on the mobile app, especially when arriving at security while their flight is already boarding.

It’s a good idea to access your boarding pass through the mobile app right away anyway because the app will store the boarding pass when you do — and in case the app fails to do so later you can pull up the one you’ve saved.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Actually, Gary, this exact same thing happened to me: checked in the night before, arrived at the airport 40 minutes prior to flight, boarding pass wouldn’t pull up on the app. Couldn’t get it from a kiosk either. Luckily, there was no line for a ticketing agent, who simply rolled his eyes at the situAAtion and printed me a paper boarding pass.

    I’m pretty sure this is a major glitch and one that AA *must* fix promptly if it wants to hang on to business travelers showing up at major airports under 45 minutes prior to flight time.

  2. The majority of us paper pass people are annoyed by the mobile crowd anyways…I always carry a paper back up, for the courtesy of not slowing down everyone behind me.

  3. Is the 45 minute cut off a new HP d/b/a US d/b/a AA mgmt rule? I always thought 45 minutes was the minimum acceptance time for checked baggage at *most* airports, but the check in cut off was 30 minutes. 10 minutes is cutting it a little close, but it seems unfair for a kiosk to not print a bp within 45 minutes of departures, especially since a good chunk of AA flights aren’t even delAAyed until AFTER their scheduled departure time (my favorite is when it’s “On Time” at the departure time and there’s no plane at the gate…a nice holdover from legacy AMR).

  4. I’ve had the same thing happen to me – it’s not an issue of not checking in, it’s an issue of not bringing up your boarding pass. And you yourself have admitted and complained that AA starts boarding well before the 30 minutes printed on the boarding pass. I’ve seen 45 minutes in advance of departure regularly. So if I check in hours before the flight, but show up at the airport 44 minutes beforehand, which is entirely reasonable at many airports. I still can’t get through security, even though there is plenty of time to get to my flight. I do think this is an issue that AA needs to fix, or at least warn customers that checking in for the flight isn’t enough, they need to download a boarding pass well in advance.

  5. You’re on the wrong side of this gone, Gary. I too have had technology snafus (e.g., app crashes, battery dies, iPhone bricks, you name it) where you can’t access your electronic BP. I try to print ones as well as backups, but sometime life (e.g., no access to printer at hotel, rushing to airport from meeting, etc.) intercedes, and you need to get the BP at the airport. The fact is you CAN arrive in plenty of time to clear security and make it to your gate with 15 minutes to spare at many airports, yet still be inside of the check-in cutoff. AA (and other airlines) need to deal with this reality.

    FWIW, WN is even worse–you can no longer pull up BPs on their app after departure time, even if the flight is delayed!!!

  6. Gary,
    I am frustrated now a days because it seems like flights close their doors earlier than they did in the 90’s when I started flying. I think I remember in the 90’s that flights did not close as early as they do now???

    Do you remember that, too?

    I remember once buying my ticket at Continental in BOS at 44 past the hour for a departure at 00, and it was no big deal.

    This is especially an issue for people taking short day trips in shuttle type markets!

    The Delta Shuttle used to publish on its web site that they would not close the door until at least 5 minutes before departure which seems fair. I don’t know if AA still has specific shorter check in and required boarding times for their shuttle; I suspect not.

    This business of closing the door 15 minutes early seems like its just a way for the airlines to pad their on time numbers.

    I don’t feel like flights are any more punctual now than they were in the good old days of the 90’s when I could readily buy my ticket at 44 past the hour for a 00 departure; and I got an upgrade too! If anything, it seems like flight block times are now longer!

    I also remember plenty of times in the EWR Presidents Club in the 90’s I would usually head to my gate 10-15 minutes before departure time and I rarely if ever missed the flight; because the flight pretty much closed up right at the departure time.

    Do you think it was really better in the 90’s in this regard, or do you think it just looks better because the memory is so distant?

  7. I feel badly for those who get trapped by this situation. It does seem like a trap for the unwary if the phone app does not tell you that calling up the bp is required. The good news you should only get trapped once. After that you know. As for the other concerns in the comments, I don’t think they are that valid.

    I wonder how much time we collectively spend now behind people who wait to get to the front of the line to fiddle with their phones or can’t get the pass to scan while boarding or make you wait while they try to explain why their phone batteries no longer work.

    If you’re going to rely on electronics and wait to show up after check in closes you may have a problem. Just as if you show up to check bags too late. Sure the airport might not be crowded and you and your bags might easily make it, but you’re taking a risk.

  8. Even in the days before mobile boarding passes, it was the case that after the check-in cutoff, even if you were already checked in, the kiosk wouldn’t print a boarding pass but the ticket counter agent could.

    It’s bizarre to me that the phone app also can’t pull up the BP after the cutoff; I suppose I usually at least glance at it after I checked in to verify my pre-check.

    The author doesn’t say whether he attempted to get a BP from the ticket counter, or if that line was too long, or if he just gave up. I’ll agree it’s a click-bait-y headline, and the author himself admits his situation is “an edge case, to be sure”, but it does seem like a valid complaint. Checked in on time, at the airport on time (though cutting it close), and can’t get a BP.

  9. I ran into a similar type situation recently. I had a an AA flight on BA metal from DUB-LHR-ORD-MCI so I checked in online prior to arriving at the airport in Dublin but I couldn’t print a copy of my boarding pass. Luckily the airline emailed a pdf copy to me. When I checked my bags in at DUB the BA agent said since I already checked in online that he could only print the DUB-LHR boarding pass and that I’d have to get the others when I go to LHR. Sound fine but at LHR you have to follow the purple transit signs and security won’t let you if you don’t have a boarding pass for onward travel. Luckily I was able to pull up the pdf’s on my phone but it was touch and go for awhile. Once through I had AA reprint the other boarding passes. I couldn’t get the app to work since I didn’t have access to wifi and it wouldn’t work at the time.

  10. @Gary I 100% disagree. The customer was required to check-in before cutoff and he did. The airline has no right to revoke his BP thru any channel until after the scheduled dpt time.

    What may have happened is the flight closed early and his BP went poof. That’s still not okay in my opinion (but I admit it’s a grey area. What good is a BP if the flight is closed?).

    I’d be filing a DOT complaint and seeking compensation for this gaffe. AA should be ashamed.

  11. Gary – seems like you’re trying way too hard to seem the expert.

    Plenty of ways that you can check in on time, but not be able to pull up your boarding pass. Mostly I’ve hit this on connecting flights so could print a bp at the gate, but this is a very legitimate gripe about how aa’s system works.

  12. To avoid last minute connectivity and other such snafus, I always screenshot the boarding pass when I see it.

    That way I don’t have to worry about the app being able to pull it up.

  13. Gary, I think you’re dead wrong about the minimum check-in-time anyways. You paid for a flight’s seat. It’s not on loan to you so-to-speak. You bought in effect a futures commodity, the right to the seat aboard the aircraft at a certain time. So the airline should have no right to “give it to someone else” even if you won’t make it. Perhaps the argument can be made for standby passengers as the doors are closing, but in my opinion that’s it.

  14. Interesting. I consistently have to bother desk reps at my local airport b/c i arrive just after check-in cutoff. Most recently, I beat the flight crew to the gate by a minute. I live near a very small airport, though.

    More significantly, AA’s app is buggy on Android. There is no Passbook type functionality on Android, so the developers have to build it in themselves and I’ve found AA’s app (and Delta’s) to be… less than adept at this particular role. It seems to be better at it when the phone’s in airplane mode! In fact, I’ve had BP’s disappear from the app and tell me to use a printed BP even after I’ve accessed it and not made any changes. So, the only real way to ensure that you can access your BP on Android is to screenshot the darn thing, and the vast majority of people don’t know how to do that.

    TLDR – iPhones are better for BP’s, but you can’t assume everyone has an iPhone!

  15. We all know people who are late or last minute for everything . I don’t understand why .
    It’s simple , get to the airport in plenty of time for your flight or suffer the consequences .
    If your life is out of control , don’t blame others . That’s denial and unproductive .

  16. I stopped flying American Airlines over a decade ago over the same issue. I was flying from Allicante, Spain to San Diego via Madrid and Miami. I got to Miami about 10:30 in the morning and American took about a half hour to get me my bag to pass through customs. When I went to check the bag back in I was informed that “Sorry, we require 45 minutes before your next flight to check your bag through, and you only have 40 minutes.” I explained that it was their fault for delaying my bag and was told “Sorry, we require 45 minutes, and there are no more flights today for San Diego, so just come back tomorrow and we will get you on a flight.” I asked if I could get a hotel voucher or anything since this was caused by their delay in getting me my bag and was told, “No, you are on your own- get your own hotel and come back tomorrow.” I even had status- whatever 50K is. An hour and a half later I finally convinced them to give me a ticket to LAX with a follow on flight to San Diego the next morning. Since the new flight was still hours away I asked for club access, upgrade priority as a distressed passenger, etc and was told basically that AMERICAN policy does not allow for customer service and all my requests were turned down. So I got to LAX after midnight, rented a car and got home at 3:30 am instead of 8 PM the previous night as per my itinerary. I flew American one more time to use up my frequent flyer miles and never have, and never will since. Apparently NOTHING HAS CHANGED. The 45 minute rule appears to be in place so they can sell your seat twice and screw you out of your flight. BTW- I have been a 1K on United for the past 10 years- yes, that’s over a million miles that went to American’s competition.

  17. Travelling AA JFK-LAX this week I checked in online the night before but had no intention of printing my BP right then. I had stacks of time at the airport before departure (to spend in the Flagship Lounge) so I opted for a paper BP at check-in. The paper version also had the welcome TSA Precheck and Priority AAcess emblazoned on it too, which the on-line version seemed to be lacking. Apart from that, I was checking my luggage right through to SYD, using a different OW ticket, so a counter stop was necessary in any event.

  18. If you have time to check in, you have time to print or access a BP.

    For all the problems there are with United IT, at least you get a BP in the app almost automatically.

  19. Always take a screen shot! I’ve had several times on AA where the boarding pass just won’t load. I’ve also had the issue with Southwest when the flight was delayed and the BP wouldn’t load after the “departure” time.

  20. It’s been only luck that I have not been caught by this undocumented feature. Yes, clicking on “boarding pass” 44 minutes prior to departure gives you plenty of time in Grand Rapids, and most Eagle airports, so I could have been the guy caught by this.

    Gary, please take the side of the common traveler. Your smug grandstanding isn’t helping your blog — and no, you’re not that smart. Get off the ivory tower. American is clearly in the wrong here.

  21. I always take a screenshot of the boarding pass which I download via the mobile app – I worry in case I can’t get online at the security line…

  22. I have to say AA’s app really is pretty terrible, especially compared to the UA app. In the UA app, there is no way to check in without having your boarding pass delivered via some channel (setting aside the fact that AA app can’t do international check in, book tickets, change seats in most instances, etc etc etc).

    In the AA app, you can definitely check in but then have to go back to your reservation and manually select boarding pass. I think it is completely reasonable to assume that once you’ve checked in getting a boarding pass should not be time sensitive – the checking in is the important act, not the issuing of the boarding pass.

  23. I agree with everyone saying “screenshot”. I check in 23.5 hours in advance for every Delta flight I’m on, and screenshot at least the first boarding pass. I still go to the kiosk to get paper passes for every leg, but the screenshot backup reduces the risk I’ll be telling the original person’s story.

  24. Always take a screenshot of your mobile boarding pass which will be in your Pictures folder if you are delayed getting into your mail due to bad connection or any other reason. On my Lumia phone I do this by pressing the power and Volume Up together til I hear a click. If the pass needs scrolling I do the top and then the bottom. Then I check it’s in the Pictures folder (under Screenshots on my phone) so I can get to it fast if the web causes any delay at all. I’ve learned to do this every time because otherwise I often need to fumble for a minute or more or find I have no connection to get into Mail about half the time, and this becomes that backup that takes 10 seconds.

  25. Gary, this has happened to me a half dozen or so times flying out of DFW. Typical situation is to check in online (not through the app), or (much more common) have my assistant check in for me. Then arrive at the airport, unable to get the boarding pass. For a first-class passenger with PreCheck, getting to the curb 30 minutes before a flight (well after the start of boarding) is more than enough time. It is a little weird that if I’m already checked in, I can’t re-print a boarding pass. FWIW, other airlines do not have this issue.

    People who are saying just take a screenshot aren’t getting the point: not being able to access the digital boarding pass isn’t the issue. It’s that the traveler never sees the digital boarding pass to begin with.

  26. In my honest opinion, for any flight, it’s quite dumb to only arrive 40 minutes before your flight, regardless of the fact that it’s a domestic flight. I do not care what a particular airline requires, it’s pretty standard that you should arrive about 2 hours earlier than your departure time for domestic flights and at least 3 to 3.5 hours earlier than your departure time for international flights. I say this also from experience because anything can go wrong.
    I checked in to and airport one time and I was very early and still barely made the boarding time because of a mix up of names and the airport printed it wrong so security sent me back for them to straighten it out. Sometimes they can make errors too, we are all human. I would never push it to the last minute for any flight in case there is an issue that needs to be sorted. I can understand if you can’t get it printed out beforehand, but at least get the mobile app and download it to your phone and also arrive to the airport early enough so that if you have to wait in line to get your boarding pass printed, you can do so without being in a rush. Why stress yourself? There is no excuse or reason to arrive so close to your flight. Ridiculous.

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