A Story of Good Ticketing and Bad Ticketing
“Does anybody onboard own a Guess bag with a big number 6 on it? If you do, please ring your call button.”
A few minutes pass.
“Ladies and gentlemen, if you are the owner of this Guess rollaboard bag with the number 6 on it, we really need you to push the call button over your seat.”
Nothing. I’m looking around, wondering all of a sudden if this has anything to do with the guy who was taken off our flight just before we pulled away from the gate at JFK. We’re on the runway, about 45 minutes into a wait for Air Force One to take off from New York to head back to D.C. It’s Alaska flight 409 from JFK to LAX, so we’ve got a big fat transcontinental flight against headwinds in front of us, and everyone, crew and pilots included, are ready to boogie.
But a few minutes later, the captain steps out of the cockpit, stretches the black cord of his PA system and says, “Folks, we can’t be sure that some of the luggage on this plane belongs to somebody on the plane, and so I really have no choice but to take us back to the gate.”
We’re in theoretical danger. We can’t rule out actual danger, and the captain, quite rightly, must rule it out before we take off. Meanwhile, it occurs to me that we’re currently sharing a runway with an extremely high value target.
This is a story about ticketing. It’s the story of two contrasting ticketing experiences I had in less than 24 hours. It’s a story about people doing the right thing in tense circumstances and how bad ticketing put those people in those circumstances. And, like me, you’re probably going to want to know how that bad ticketing is going to get fixed.
But let’s start with good ticketing. For this, I turn, of course, to my brothers and sisters in the ticketing and live entertainment business. They’re not perfect, and I’ve criticized the industry plenty, but in this instance, the design of the system deserves some praise.
I went to Pier 17 in New York to see Janelle Monáe and I had bought tickets for several friends and business partners. The place is ticketed by Ticketmaster, and so I had most of the group’s tickets on my own phone. They scanned us at the door and then, to get into the (very cool) Heineken Green Zone part of the venue, they had to scan us again. It was loud and dark and I was flipping through four or five tickets to get us through the gate. In so doing, I accidentally flipped to one of the tickets that had already been used a second before. “That one’s been used,” the usher said, “Have you got another one for your other guest?” Of course, I actually did, and flipped to a fresh one, which scanned “green” and we were on our merry way to a night of musical fun.
That’s how you would expect it to work, and whether on paper or a phone, one code scans one time. The alternative is a nightmare of fraud and doubled-up seats and … I don’t have to tell you, ticket professionals!
The next morning, I’m off to L.A. when the story I just told you unfolded. The captain brought us back to the gate and told us to take everything we owned off the plane. Every cop in New York City was seemingly there, and we stood at the gate while they swept the plane for any dangerous shenanigans. While we were there, the gate agents talked us through the whole story (btw, handling a slightly testy group with extreme poise). Based on what they said and what I’ve pieced together since, here’s what happened, the Bad Ticketing:
* A passenger bought a ticket for the same flight (409 from JFK to LAX) for the same date one month from the date of this flight.
* He showed up at the airport, went to a kiosk, put in his name and flight number and printed a perfectly valid boarding pass.
* He scanned successfully at security and could show an ID with a name that matched the boarding pass.
* He scanned successfully at the gate and got on the plane.
How, you might be asking, is such a thing possible? As it happens, somebody with the same name as this passenger was ticketed for this same flight, so of course, he got the boarding pass, showed an ID with the same name as the one on the boarding pass at security, and then got on the plane.
But you’ll notice, that’s not really the problem. Let’s break it down in steps.
- The kiosk. You can walk up and start typing in common names at a kiosk for a big flight and probably get yourself a boarding pass. But, of course, if you don’t have the ID to back it up, you’re not going anywhere (probably).
- Security. You’ve got a boarding pass and an ID that match. The TSA doesn’t know much about that boarding pass except that the airline says it’s valid for travel on the same day. This might not be great, but it’s understandable.
- The gate. This is the problem. What happened on my flight is that the same boarding pass code scanned twice and two different people walked onto the plane as a result. It’s the exact same situation (but I’d argue far more serious) that I faced at the Heineken Green Zone, except if I was going to get access to a private bar and within 100 feet of Janelle Monáe, I was going to have to prove that I had a valid, never-before-used ticket to do so. And all my friends, too!
Let’s take a minute to consider the possibilities here, of which there are two:
First, both boarding passes scanned green, even though one was (obviously) already used by the time the second one was brought forward. Just like at Pier 17. I asked Alaska Airlines if this is possible, and they claimed that it is not.
Second, one boarding pass scanned green, and the second one scanned red, but the gate agents waved the passenger through anyway. Again, on the grounds that he had a valid boarding pass and could back it up with an ID if challenged. I think this must have happened.
I think that partly because it’s staggering to consider the first possibility: that a boarding pass scans — at the gate — as many times as it is presented. But I don’t know. Alaska says that it doesn’t, but I don’t actually know, and I have no idea what other airlines say.
The rest of the story goes like this: When two guys with the same name were trying to sit in the same seat, this finally came to light. A final “fail-safe” that worked, but this is incredibly poor design. After that, human nature took over and things unraveled. When the Guess bag went unclaimed, some passenger told the crew that they thought the guy who was taken off the plane (our 2nd boarding pass man) had left his luggage there.
This put the captain in the position where the one and only option he had was the one he took: an abundance of caution, and a free tour for us of JFK Terminal 7. We deplaned and were told to take everything that was ours with us. Everything.
As you may have guessed, some jackalope onboard did own the Guess bag and took it off the plane with him/her/them. That person laid low for the rest of the trip, obviously. No in-flight snacks for them.
I’d like to repeat that the Alaska staff handled it like champs. A couple passengers got a little testy during the return visit to Gate 12, but the ground crew just kept making the entirely valid point that there’s no way in the world they were going to fly a giant metal object full of explosive fuel 3,000 miles if somebody who shouldn’t have been on the plane had just left some mystery (Guess!) luggage onboard.
Which they had not done, but which we couldn’t know at the time. I’d also like to share that even with this amount of hassle, delay and theoretical danger, I still count myself incredibly lucky to live at a time in history when we can cross North America in mere hours with the virtual certainty of arriving safely. Part of the reason it’s “virtually certain” is the very abundance of caution that the pilot and crew showed.
But I digress from the story of Bad Ticketing. This is epic Bad Ticketing. And yes, on any one flight, it’s perhaps unlikely that two people have names that match and one person bought for the wrong day, etc., etc., but on a system level it’s a virtual certainty. Hell, take any jumbo jet out of Boston, and there’s bound to be two James McCarthys onboard.
So, ticketing people, how can we help the airlines solve this problem? Draconian measures or security theater (like taking off your shoes) should be avoided, but clearly, this is a flaw! I just thought of three highly plausible ways a Dastardly Villain could use this loophole, which I’m not going to share, but if I can think of them, so can actual Dastardly Villains. In fact, I thought about whether to share this or not, but then I figured, the Dastardly Villain community must already know this, and so the hardworking, safety-first Intrepid Heroes of the Airline Industry better know it, too. I saw something, and I’m saying something.
I’m not really an expert on this aspect of ticketing, but some of you are. How do you fix this? I’m being serious. Who’s got real answers?