Can you prove that you were on a flight?

by Eszter Hargittai on June 27, 2005

The other day I found myself in the curious position of having to prove that I had been on a flight in order to be allowed to return home. The only explanation I could come up with for the airline having no record of my presence on the flight there is that the gate agent had failed to scan in my boarding pass. As far as I can tell I had done everything “by the book”. In this day and age of being tracked in so many situations and so many ways, I found it an interesting twist that I could think of no way of proving (no way that the ticketing agent seemed to find satisfactory) that I had, indeed, been on the plane and should be allowed to return home on my originally scheduled flight. Details follow.

On Friday, I went to Ohio for a wedding. In the morning I checked in online, printed out my boarding pass and headed for O’Hare. Everything went smoothly. There was a short line at security, the agent checked my ID and marked my boarding pass, I proceeded to my gate. There was a bit of commotion at the gate as several flights were scheduled to be going out of the same area very close to each other. However, it turned out that there were two doors at the gate and only people on my flight were exiting through that specific one. Things proceeded seemingly fine. We were called to board and being a frequent flyer with this airline, I was allowed to board immediately so I did. The agent took my print-out with the boarding pass on it. She tore off the upper part and handed back the rest of the sheet. I think I recall seeing that she did not scan it in and finding that curious, but nothing hugely out-of-the-ordinary. (This was perhaps the second time I had checked in at home and was traveling with a printed boarding pass so I did not have enough experience to know how this is usually handled.)

I arrived at the Cleveland airport soon after. I realized that I had neglected to print out the itinerary for my return trip so I went to the ticketing counter and asked for a copy of that. I also asked to have my seat changed to something closer to the front of the plane. This was all fine. The agent pulled up my record (for future reference, recall that this is all at Cleveland after I had taken the flight there), changed my seat assignment and printed out my itinerary including both the flight information going there and back. There was some confusion over my preferred seat assignment so she ended up printing out the information three times. I doubt this made any difference, but I’m mentioning it for a detailed and accurate account of everything that happened. I left the airport.

Next day I arrived at this airport again and proceeded to the machines that allow self check-in. Neither of the two machines I tried recognized my credit card so I proceeded to the line to talk to a ticketing agent. I told him the machines were not recognizing me so I needed to get my boarding pass from him. He asked me where I was going and when. I told him. I also handed him the flight itinerary the agent had printed out for me the day before at that same counter area so he could have all the info. He started typing on his machine and looked confused. (The following is not verbatim, it’s as close as I can remember.) He said there was no record of me having been on the flight to Cleveland. Now I got confused. I had been at that same counter area just 26 hours earlier having taken the flight there and having gotten a printout of my entire itinerary after the trip. I said as much. He said I needed to show him some proof that I had been on the flight. I asked why that was relevant for my return flight. I was not trying to be hostile, I was just trying to understand the situation and what that had to do with my ticket not showing up. He said that since I had not been on the flight there – he did not say “since records fail to show that you had been on the flight”, rather, he stated as a fact that I had not been on the flight – my reservation for the return flight had been cancelled. Now I got nervous. I could picture myself having to spend the night in Cleveland. (No offense to Cleveland, but that was really not part of my weekend plans.) I said I didn’t understand. I thought I had purchased the ticket not just reserved it so how could it be cancelled? He said they get cancelled if the passenger does not show up on the first part of the trip. He did not specify the reason for that and I was too confused at the moment to try to make sense of it. At that point I was concerned with getting myself on the flight home.

He asked for my boarding pass stub from the day before. I explained that I had checked in at home and had printed out the boarding pass. I quickly realized that (for no good reason) I did still have the rest of the sheet so I pulled that out of my purse. I showed it to him. My name, flight number, seat assignment were all on the sheet. But that wasn’t good enough. He murmured something about how these home check-ins were really making things difficult for them. (I think that’s what he said, it was under his breath so it was hard for me to understand.)

He told me that he wanted something different. I looked at him puzzled and frustrated. I explained that I had been on the flight and the agent had printed out my itinerary after my arrival so they must have had some record of me being on it. He wasn’t satisfied. He asked if I had checked in any luggage. I said no. (This should not be too out-of-the-ordinary for a one-day trip.) In an accusatory tone (as in: I do not believe that you were on that flight) he continued to ask for proof. I was at a complete loss. Suddenly I realized that I had gotten a small water bottle on the flight that I didn’t think had anything on it to prove it was from the flight, but thought had been distinct enough that perhaps he’d take it as proof. Again, for no good reason, I still had the water bottle with me. I pulled it out of my bag. He took it and looked at it and seemed satisfied. He said something about how that was fine then, the water bottle proved it. I honestly couldn’t tell if he was just being sarcastic.

At this point he proceeded to assign me a ticket.

The only explanation I can come up with is that the gate agent had failed to scan in my boarding pass and thus the airline had no record of me being on it. This is curious in this day-and-age of security precautions. How could an airline not know who is on its flights?

I still cannot think of anything I could have done differently to prevent this uncomfortable situation. I replayed Friday’s events. I did everything the way you are “supposed to” as a traveller. It also occured to me that even if I had simply checked in at the airport (as opposed to printing the boarding pass at home), theoretically I could have still NOT gotten on the flight, kept the boarding pass stub and left the airport so I don’t quite see how that would have been better proof of my having been on the flight.

It made me feel better to know that because I am such a pack rat I still had the remains of the boarding pass printout and the water bottle with me, although in the end I cannot tell if they helped at all.

The most disturbing part of all this for me – beyond the fact that the airline did not know I was on the flight, which seems unfortunate in case something happens to the plane – was the accusatory tone of the ticketing agent and the assumption that I was lying about having been on the flight. I don’t know what I could have done any differently, I cannot identify having done anything wrong and so it was disturbing to be accused of having been responsible for this situation and being treated so poorly. Am I missing something?

UPDATE: It sounds a bit silly that “the most disturbing” part to me was having been treated poorly. I meant that on a personal level. Of course, overall, the really disturbing part is that the system is set up in a way that something like this can happen.



djw 06.27.05 at 9:36 am

Name names. Which airline pulls this nonsense? I seem to remember not having my boarding pass scanned recently, and not worrying about it.


Steve LaBonne 06.27.05 at 9:37 am

_He said they get cancelled if the passenger does not show up on the first part of the trip._ My understanding is that the “reason” for this is the insane pricing system whereby a round-trip ticket often costs less than a one-way ticket- they want to prevent one-way passengers from taking advantage of the “loophole” they so stupidly created themselves, by booking a RT ticket and only using one leg.

Between the customer disservice of the deserve-to-be-out-of-business-soon airlines, and the annoying and unfunny joke that is airport “security”, I’ve refused for some time now to fly to any destination that I can drive to in one day.


gzombie 06.27.05 at 9:58 am

Have you talked to a customer service representative from the airline? It sounds like you have a pretty good hypothesis of why this happened (no scanning of your boarding pass). Why not tell the airline your story and express your concerns?


Barry Freed 06.27.05 at 10:09 am

From a security standpoint I wonder what would have happened if you had in fact checked luggage on your first leg. If the same screw-up can happen in such a case that is most worrying since it means that it is possible for a passenger to check luggage (tick-tock-tick-tock…) and not take the flight.

As for the requested proof, I suppose you’re lucky he didn’t insist on the ever more common cavity search in hopes that some tell-tale half-digested airline peanuts might show up.


P ONeill 06.27.05 at 10:17 am

It’s crazy. Tom Ridge strikes again. But the red flag, from their idiotic perspective, looks like your quick round trip with no Saturday night stopover. Therefore they may suspect that you pieced together 2 RTs, maybe one on another airline, to get something cheaper than the no Sat night stay fare with them. Was this Southwest? I’d be surprised if it was. But maybe it’s another airline that thinks part of your trip was with Southwest.


Alex 06.27.05 at 10:33 am

The same thing happened to me a few years ago when I was trying to return to New York from Bangkok. Somehow I’d managed to fly from NYC to Seoul to Bangkok and back to Seoul without leaving a trace in Korean Air’s computers. Consequently my reservation on the Seoul to NYC leg had been cancelled and I was turned away at the gate. So I found myself in the Seoul airport trying to convince the airline that there was no other possible way to account for my presence there; after all, you can’t just wander into the international terminal off of the street – especially if you reside in Brooklyn.

After several hours, they finally accepted the validity of my printed-out itinerary and assorted ephemera and apologized (very graciously). They told me that their flights to New York were booked up for the next week and that I would have to go into Seoul and wait. Having been traveling around Thailand and Cambodia, I only had just enough money on me for cab fare from JFK back to my apartment. Eventually, I managed to convince them to fly me to Washington D.C. and get me on a connecting flight to New York on one of their partner airlines.

No real point to this story, it’s just that five years later I’m still pretty upset about this.


Hank 06.27.05 at 10:51 am

During the past year, as part of my job for an outlying resort, I have met a number of incoming guests who were “no shows”. By inquiring at the airline’s desk you can find out if they booked seats, but can not determine for certain if they were actually on that flight – there are no records such as luggage check-ins or boarding pass info available at the other end of a flight – at least not for some peon family-member or friend who is meeting the plane. I wonder how long it would take a federal agent to find out if a suspect had actually flown from X to Y…

Still a few bugs in The System, bitches, but Heigh-ho Mars!


A-ro 06.27.05 at 11:06 am

You had proof that you purchased the reservation. Why didn’t they have to prove that you were NOT on the flight in order for them to deny you a boarding pass?


Elyas 06.27.05 at 11:52 am

I flew Southwest this weekend, and might have had a similar experience if I wasn’t already on the return flight. As I boarded the plane, the ticket scanner suddenly stopped working a few people ahead of me in line. The airline employees kept the line moving and took my ticket without scanning it.

This made me a little nervous, given all the security precautions these days. I worried that I might be hassled later about it, but everything went smoothly.


fjm 06.27.05 at 11:56 am

It sounds horribly like an internal scam. Agent fails to can ticket. Knows there will therefore be a “spare” space, then perhaps tried to sell the seat?
I think you *must* report it.


John 06.27.05 at 12:20 pm

Sound remarkably like the story of the British officer who had been (erroneously) reported killed. In order to receive his back pay he was required to prove that he had been alive between the relevant dates.


Ereshkigal 06.27.05 at 1:31 pm

I would report this incident to the airline, to Transportation Security, and to the FAA.

Send a copy of your letter to Consumers Union (parent organization of Consumer Reports).


luci phyrr 06.27.05 at 2:09 pm

Ever try to catch the second leg of a trip after skipping the first leg? They won’t let you, and you lose your ticket.


Tad Brennan 06.27.05 at 2:30 pm

Can you prove that you were on a flight?

Wait–I think I know how you do it:

If one of a pair of identical twins is put on a plane and sped off around the world at high speeds, then on landing he will be slightly *younger* than his earthbound twin.

SO: all you had to do was to produce your earth-bound identical twin,and demonstrate that she was infinitesimally younger than you!

(Also check her baggage for any fresh produce that is infinitesimally riper, or moldier as the case may be–but watch out for Barney the Beagle, the sniffer dog from the Agriculture Department! It’s a no-no to bring fresh produce on the flight!).


Tad Brennan 06.27.05 at 2:36 pm

oops–I meant “that she was infinitesimally older”, of course.


Rebecca 06.27.05 at 2:57 pm

I’ll add to all of this…copy any letters you send to the airline to your U.S. Representative and your Senators.


Max 06.27.05 at 3:05 pm

What airline?


abb1 06.27.05 at 3:15 pm

I’ll add to all of this…copy any letters you send to the airline to your U.S. Representative and your Senators.

Assuming you are serious, wouldn’t this be a bit of an overkill? Why not just treat it as a minor annoying incident (which is what it was) and try to forget about it.


paul 06.27.05 at 3:26 pm

I shouldn’t be surprised if a home-printed boarding pass has a fair chance of jamming the very-card-stock-specific feed mechanism of the gate scanner. If the agent puts it aside for scanning after everybody else or entering manually, the rest follows naturally.

Airlines have been doing this kind of stuff for decades — my most notable experiences along these lines were the times I showed up with a travel-agent-printed ticket in my hand only to be told that the airline had no record of my reservation or ticket purchase.

Ultimately it makes clear why defense in depth is the only security strategy that makes sense.


Barry Freed 06.27.05 at 3:57 pm

I shouldn’t be surprised if a home-printed boarding pass has a fair chance of jamming the very-card-stock-specific feed mechanism of the gate scanner.

Right. Did you remember to not fold, spindle or mutilate your boarding pass? No? Naughty girl.

And I wouldn’t report this to the airline much less TSA, not if you want a chance on a one way ticket to Gitmo.


dglp 06.27.05 at 3:59 pm

…the airline, Transportation Security, the FAA, U.S. Representative and your Senators, the Better Business Bureaus and anyone who will listen.

Why should an incompetent airline employee – or a competent employee with dysfunctional technology – be allowed to make an ‘innocent’ mistake while you are not? Sorry, no forgiveness here. Zero tolerance for security lapses.

When an autocratic and potentially horrendous scenario unfolds itself upon you, the appropriate response is to speak loudly and clearly to everyone who can hear, while maintaining an even disposition, of course. Unless, of course, you relish the prospect of being disappeared.

Put it this way: let it slide at your peril. You think it’s a glitch and that the humane concern of someone somewhere will keep it from going too far wrong? Don’t be a fool. More inmportantly, don’t be glib, and don’t be complacent. These things are meant to protect you. If they aren’t, then there’s a problem.

So who ya gonna call?
I’d start with the Senators.


abb1 06.27.05 at 4:36 pm

Mr. Kofi Annan ought to be informed immediately. For the sake of humanity.


Nathan Williams 06.27.05 at 5:26 pm

I shouldn’t be surprised if a home-printed boarding pass has a fair chance of jamming the very-card-stock-specific feed mechanism of the gate scanner.

I can’t recall the last time I went past a gate scanner that wasn’t a non-contact barcode scanner….


Art 06.27.05 at 5:33 pm

Something similar happened to me last month, but with much gentler side effects.

I was flying the first leg of a round trip between Minneapolis/St Paul and Reagan National on NWA. Two minutes before I got to a check-in kiosk, NWA’s back-end computers crashed. Mayhem and confusion resulted, of course, and everyone had to have a paper ticket written. There was no security — people asked what flight you were on, they wrote it on a boarding pass, and you walked through security and onto the plane, sitting wherever you could find a seat. The boarding pass was the only record, they didn’t keep any other information.

Being paranoid, I checked my reservation online a couple days later and saw that NWA no longer had record of my confirmation number. I called an agent and explained the situation. She was able to reverse the cancellation with absolutely no problem, and it took all of about three seconds.

For some reason, any problems I’ve had with airline staff have always been the customer-facing people — the gate agents, ticket agents, or flight attendants. I don’t know if they get upset with all the impatient, abusive, obnoxious customers, but sometimes I meet someone who obviously has an axe to grind and a need to take it out on someone. The call center staff are almost always great and very accomodating.


Abby 06.27.05 at 5:40 pm

John–are you serious? The officer had to prove that he had been alive. Where did you read this? I want links, damn it!


paul 06.27.05 at 6:07 pm

2 and 13 are right. It’s to prevent people from gaming the airlines’ pricing strategies. Say John lives in a monopoly airport town, A, and is flying to a competitive market, B, on Monday. A to B, one-way, is $300. But B to A and back with a Sat night stay is $150. So he buys the latter ticket, and shows up on Mon expecting to go to B. Too bad!
At least in the US, airlines have every legal right to do this, and have been for decades.


nick 06.27.05 at 6:19 pm

Welcome to Security Theatre, playing at major US airports.


Mary 06.27.05 at 6:26 pm

That kind of “yeah right” hostility is familar to me from a fairly different situation. I once selected a small (very light) china doll from a store for a friend and they took a box from the shelf, gift wrapped it for me and sold it to me. When my friend opened it, it was an empty box containing packing but no doll. The sales assistant was openly hostile to my “you sold me an empty box!” claims but I think the same thing happened: eventually he realised I wasn’t backing down and wasn’t leaving without an actual china doll, so he gave it to me while making it clear he thought I was the worst kind of lying petty thief.


Greg 06.27.05 at 6:47 pm

Back before taking your shoes off, I was often hassled over ID at the airport. I don’t have a driver’s license, and have worked for many small companies that don’t issue security badges or the like, leaving me with very little proof of my identity. I asked to speak to the manager or person in charge, who in one instance proceeded to tell me that without ID, I could be arrested for vagrancy, but who ulimately put me on the plane. In another case, I had my bags checked for explosives residue because my corporate ID, which had been accepted by the same gate agent two weeks’ previously, was unsatisfactorily that morning. In both cases I delivered a stock speech about “papers” and freedom to travel and so forth, which probably got up their noses, but felt pretty good. Anyway, don’t wait: ask for the manager if the clerk can’t handle the situation.


Brett Bellmore 06.27.05 at 7:07 pm

I recall years ago, (So don’t blame Ridge. I’m cool with you blaming Minetta, though.) my father was flying down to Florida. For his convenience, we’d booked him through the local small airport, with a commuter flight to Detroit.

Thunderstorms canceled the commuter, but the layover in Detroit was such that I could make the drive in time for that departure. We informed the ticket agent that we were doing that, got back in the car, and drove to Detroit… To find that he’d canceled the ticket all the way through to the final destination, in spite of being informed of our intentions.

Fortunately, Dad had already been issued the boarding pass, so they had to accomidate him. But it did sour me on using commuters to save an hour’s drive.


anon 06.27.05 at 10:45 pm

One year my then-15 year old daughter had to leave late for her summer camp, because she was making a CD with her choir. We knew all this well in advance, and bought her ticket through the special “for camps” group rate 800 number at the airline the camp recommended. Because she wasn’t coming in with a hoard of other kids and had to be met specially by an employee of the camp driving many miles, we arranged for a red-eye flight arriving at 9 in the morning. Of course she was an unaccompanied minor (16 is the cut-off for that requirement) despite her maturity and many plane flights unaccompanied.

When we got to SFO that night to put her on the plane after her last recording session, the gate agent announced that unaccompanied minors couldn’t fly on red-eyes. My husband, much less prone to explosion, gently and repeatedly pointed out that we had been sold the ticket by an airline employee, complete with disclosure of her age, and after insisting that the base manager be called at home to rule on the matter, they finally decided instead that if the pilot allowed it, she could fly. He did and she did.


rajH 06.28.05 at 2:42 am

Therefore they may suspect that you pieced together 2 RTs, maybe one on another airline, to get something cheaper than the no Sat night stay fare with them.

Combinatorially, of the six ways you can use one leg each from two RTs, one of them involves using the outbound legs from each RT, and hence not raise any red flags with the airline, at least if the two RTs are with different airlines.

Ezster, short of insisting that your boarding pass be scanned or otherwise recorded (on the outbound), there wasn’t much to be done. As for dealing with the airline employee, maybe the right mix of annoyance, entitlement and a how-dare-you-question-me attitude could have helped, though I could easily see them backfiring.


rajH 06.28.05 at 2:46 am

From a security standpoint I wonder what would have happened if you had in fact checked luggage on your first leg.

In ’02, I missed a flight after checking in (I was taking oxycodone for my knee and fell asleep in the boarding area!) The bag I checked, though, merrily went along its way. This is just one incident, of course, but the airline people at either end didn’t even bat their eyelids, which probably means this happens more often than it should.

And I wouldn’t report this to the airline much less TSA, not if you want a chance on a one way ticket to Gitmo.

On the bright side, I’m sure the good folks at the Pentagon won’t mind at all if you get a round-trip (with a Sat stay) and don’t complete the return leg.


Nick 06.28.05 at 6:37 am

Sounds like a clear case of cock-up on the part of the airline & its systems in the first place. Well worth raising politely but very firmly with CRM. They urgently need to be encouraged to get this kind of thing right.
The check-in agent’s behaviour, sadly, is typically charmless, but still well worth raising with them too.


Stentor 06.28.05 at 10:19 am

Since we’re telling stories of airline security idiocy, I’m reminded of the time I flew from Syracuse to Minneapolis during a period that I had no photo on my driver’s license (I wasn’t in-state at the time I got it renewed). They looked at my license and said it was fine in Syracuse, at the changeover in Detroit, and getting on the return flight in Minneapolis. But boarding the Detroit to Syracuse flight, they suddenly decided my ID wasn’t good enough anymore. Luckily I had my passport with me as well, just in case.


paul 06.28.05 at 11:48 am

The picture on the driver’s license is pretty much mandatory now, it seems. Vermont has an option for getting a license without one, but good luck trying to fly with it. There are also apparently rules about using a recently-expired license for ID, which trigger some of the heightened searches if invoked.

If you start your trip in a non-hub city, it seems not at all uncommon that the identification that let you leave won’t be considered sufficient to get you home. Shades of the Hong Kong-Macao ferry…


Jay 06.28.05 at 1:57 pm

For me, the BIGGEST downside of a gate agent’s failure to scan my boarding pass and duly registering my presence on a flight is the loss of frequent flier miles! ARRRGGHH!

I fly a lot and I’ve boarded at gates with broken scanners several times in the past. I tell gate agents that I won’t board the plane until I watch them manually “board” me using the adjacent keyboard/screen terminal, citing FAA Rule 188, which calls for “…immediate termination of any airline employee, and possible criminal prosecution thereof, who shall allow any passenger to board a commercial aircraft without completing an accurate and complete registration of said passenger’s boarding of the aircraft PRIOR to the act of boarding.”

Oh don’t bother googling FAA Rule 188. I made it up. But it sure scares the CRAP out of gate agents. NO ONE fucks with MY frequent flier miles ;)


Eszter 06.28.05 at 8:25 pm

Here’s an additional related story recounted by Kevin Kahn posted on Dave Farber’s IP list (where I had sent my blog post).

The airlines seem rather prone to throwing up their hands at situations like these. Last Christmas holiday, returning from LGA to PDX via ORD my wife and I got on standby for a slightly earlier flight than we reserved from LGA to ORD to allow a safer connect time in Chicago. Apparently the gate agent in New York mishandled the
standby with the result that since we “hadn’t flown” our LGA to ORD leg, they cancelled our ORD to PDX leg for which we were holding actual first class boarding passes. This was on AA where at the time I had top flyer status (EXP for those who track such). The Chicago agents shrugged their shoulders and said tough – you have no seats
since you didn’t fly here. Go away and we’ll figure out how to get you home tomorrow maybe. Of course we had boarding passes for the flight we just got off of and unused passes for the flight we were trying to board which the gate reader now viewed as invalid. It took intervention from the elite desk at American to get them to off load
a couple of non-rev passengers and even put us on the plane in a couple of very bad coach seats. The agents in Chicago had no interest in handling an obvious airline screw up to one of their best
class of passenger. Even after the fact, interactions with AA Customer relations only elicited a reluctant apology and eventually
after telephone conversations some consolation frequent flyer points. Needless to say, I do not currently go out of my way to fly American. And the airlines wonder why they have annoyed customers!


diddy 06.29.05 at 11:21 am

“I can’t recall the last time I went past a gate scanner that wasn’t a non-contact barcode scanner….”

For completeness it should be noted that in many locations AA uses a combination of a non-contact bar code scanner for self-check passes and a scanner which accepts only standard ticket stock and spits out the stub. I recently encountered this combination at O’Hare.


Joshua W. Burton 06.30.05 at 10:47 am

_The only explanation I can come up with is that the gate agent had failed to scan in my boarding pass and thus the airline had no record of me being on it. This is curious in this day-and-age of security precautions. How could an airline not know who is on its flights?_

It gets better. Suppose Mohammed Atta’s angry kid brother, Atta Boy, had your credit card, and printed out a boarding pass as you, then gimped up a second boarding pass in his own name. At ORD security, he shows an honest Saudi passport, as Atta Boy, and a matching boarding pass. They don’t have scanners there, so unless the TSA goon has the whole no-fly list memorized, in he goes.

At the plane, even if they do scan the boarding pass (as they should) they make a big point of _not_ asking for your ID a second time, so here he hands in the real boarding pass, as Eszter. They scan it, and he strolls down the jetway.

The security requirement was to match a valid government ID, a purchased ticket, and a name that isn’t flagged. Yet we have just spent years and gigabucks (and harassed a few billion travelers) to create a system that _never checks all three things in one place._

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