A smartwatch as a boarding pass is anything but first class

We test out Delta's Android Wear boarding pass — so you don't have to

We were promised the future. This this one square inch of real estate on our wrist (OK, a little more than that) known as Android Wear was promised to be the future of mobile, and the start of the wearables era. But when it comes to using the likes of the Samsung Gear Live, LG G Watch and Moto 360 as your mobile boarding pass for getting through security and onto your flight, I say this:

There are easier ways.

A month into my time with Android Wear, I finally got the opportunity to give Google's smartwatch a go for flying, from Pensacola to Dallas then home from Austin, Texas. As you'll recall, Delta Air Lines was one of the first U.S. carriers to update with support for Android Wear, just as the first watches started shipping.

Here's how it works:

Using your watch as your boarding pass needs to be easier than paper or a phone.

First things first: You'll need the Fly Delta app (opens in new tab) on your phone. (And if you fly Delta but aren't using the Fly Delta app, now's a good time to try it. It's super handy, though it is still a tad slow on Android.) Once you're checked in to your flight and your boarding pass is available — that'll be within 24 hours of your scheduled departure time — you'll be able to get the info on your watch.

While there's technically a Fly Delta app installed to your watch, there's not actually a menu setting or anything to get to your boarding pass. Instead, you'll need to view the boarding pass on your phone first, and then it'll show on your watch. That is, you'll need to first take your phone out of your pocket and view the thing that you're wanting to instead view on your watch. Then you'll be able to view it on your watch.

The notification comprises three parts. The first shows that you've got the boarding pass available from one city to another. Swipe left, and you'll be asked if you want to actually open the boarding pass on the watch. Do that, and you'll be presented with a Delta logo and your departing and arriving cities for that boarding pass. You have to swipe through that to get to anything really useful.

As we're quickly learning, information is the most valuable commodity on a smartwatch.

(An aside: While we get the importance of the branding, such a waste of space and necessitating another swipe is something that should be avoided at all costs.)

Swipe left again and you'll be presented with the actual boarding pass — a QR code that will be scanned first by security, and later at the gate. Swipe left one more time and you get your flight information — flight number, departing and arriving city codes, boarding time, boarding zone and seat number. If you swipe away the top-level boarding pass notification, you'll need to go back to your phone, view the boarding pass again in the Delta app, and then wait for it to reappear on your watch. There's no dedicated Android Wear app to open and find things. That's a shame.

But you know what? All that's the easy part.

A smartwatch and a barcode scanner — it's not always this easy

As modern as airports have become — and even my not-actually-international Pensacola International Airport has TSA Pre and mobile boarding passes — they're not really ergonomically designed for using a smartwatch — or anything else that stuck on your body. At one TSA checkpoint I had to lean over the lectern and lay my arm on the scanner upside down. At the day's first gate scanner I had to first hope the damn thing would see the QR code on the watch in the first place, then fuss a little bit to position myself (again, me and not just a device) in the right place. It worked, and probably not in any more time than it would have taken me with a phone. (In fact, only the surprised exclamation of the gate attendant was the only thing that slowed me down — but it would have been rude not to explain.)

There's no guarantee you'll even be able to physically use your watch.

I didn't bother using the watch for my second flight from Atlanta — it was a bottom-up scanner that would have required some real contortion since I wear my watch as you're supposed to — with the face pointing up, away from the top of my arm.

In Austin, on the return trip, there was no way I was going to be able to use the watch at TSA — the scanner was barely in reach in the first place and awkward enough to use with a phone.

This really should be the first thing you see

Do your fellow flyers a favor: Don't use your watch.

One thing that's worth mentioning: At no point did anyone question my using a watch for any of this. (That's not to say it won't happen to someone at some point, though — it most certainly will.) The woman working TSA in Pensacola thought it was cool, and we talked about it for a second, seeing as there was no one in line behind me. The woman at the gate in Pensacola thought it was neat, too. And they're both right. It is neat. And it is cool.

And it's also not anywhere near as easy as placing your phone or a paper boarding pass down on the scanner. You can do it. You might even be able to do it without inconveniencing someone else. There certainly will be a time and a place for this — anywhere someone's using a handheld scanner should be fine. But airports? They're just not ready for your wrist.

Phil Nickinson
  • From my understanding, you don't need to open the Fly Delta app to view your boarding pass on Google Now. Boarding passes from supported airlines should just automatically show up on Google Now if you have the Google Now card for boarding passes enabled in Google Search. A few hours before your flight, the card with your boarding pass should start showing up on your smartwatch -- you'd simply need to swipe up on the screen to open Google Now and get to your boarding pass.
  • That's been true for United, but I've yet to see that for Delta. And what we're talking about here is different anyway.
  • Currently, the only airline to support Google Now boarding passes is United, and even that is a pain in the rear to get working properly.
  • It's not really that it's a pain to set up on Google Now. It's just that having the boarding pass card in Now doesn't really make anything more convenient for me. I'm always going to have the United app open while I'm in the airport anyway, because I need it for more than just the boarding pass. I use it to check my flight upgrade status, check the flight status of the incoming flight if my plane's not at the gate already, find a United club if I'm not in an airport that I already know like the back of my hand, etc. That's just obviously more functionality than they would want to build into Google Now, so the app is going to be a necessity no matter what.
  • i thought google now gives u flight delays and all that
  • It does. It doesn't alert you to gate changes, though. And it can't tell you when the inbound plane that you're waiting on is due to land. There's a lot of information that frequent flyers want that definitely requires the full airline app. Posted from my Nexus 5, behind seven proxies
  • It has alerted me of gate changes before.
  • Which airline? I wonder if that makes a difference.
  • United. I work for them :P
  • Oh, cool! What do you do? I spend a whole lot of time on your planes.
  • A little off topic, but does the Google Now boarding pass indicate TSA Precheck on it?
  • Poor Phil....but thanks for bringing the "usability" factor to the surface. I'm sure it'll help set better expectations for wearables and wearable compatible devices (even though the scanners weren't really made for them).
  • Yeah, for me it came down to having to view it on your phone first, and the fact that the scanners aren't really set up for this. (FWIW, TSA was the bigger culprit. The gate scanners are more doable, though if they're shooting from the bottom up it's still awkward.)
  • y? is it really that hard to turn the watch around on ur wrist?
  • Yikes. No advantage over using the app on the phone but more steps added. Yes, it's cool looking but not cool acting enough to be worth it. When the workflow to get a paper boarding pass from an airport kiosk is easier than using your app you know you've failed.
  • You could have at least said "hi" while you were in Austin, Phil!
  • All these wearables...designed to fix a problem that doesn't exist.
  • Haha for real, that's exactly how I feel about them. Sometimes you can't just beat good old fashioned paper.
  • See this is where i think you are wrong, Although it won't be for everyone. I myself would love to have this. Here is my reasoning, My wife is handicapped. She suffers from MS and although she can walk she does so slowly and tires quickly. When we go to Phoenix Sky Harbor I do not even attempt to ask her to walk it. I know she doesn't want to. So I normally have a attendant push her in a wheelchair which means I usaually have the carry ons, (laptop, her carry on,) On top of this I have her lic, my lic the board passes and whatever else. Yes I could put some of it on her lap but she has to get up at the TSA checkpoint and deal with that. Not something i want her to worry about. Now if they made the app much easier this would be one less thing I'd need to worry about. Either she wears her watch or she wears both for us so that it can make my life a tad easier to fly...
  • Some people are born naysayers. No matter what happens they'll find a reason to hate on things.
  • So because one usage case is pointless then they all are? Just having notifications at a glance is enough of a game changer for many people you know...
  • That's exactly why I bought one. I know that as the platform evolves I will find more features and uses but for now this is enough to get me onboard as an early adopter. Posted via Android Central App
  • Maybe in the case of boarding passes, but you're wrong overall. There are plenty of great uses for smartwatches. Posted via Android Central App
  • Gd idea and all but those of us who aren't the most carefully can easily forget to charge. lol. Then ur screwed. Unless you keep a hard copy of course but then what's the point apart from the since of security? Posted via Android Central App
  • If you forget to charge the watch you still have the phone. If you forget to charge the phone you have bigger problems because they won't let you take it on the flight (at least to and from the US) anyway. Posted via Android Central App
  • Hopefully airports will start to adapt to these new types of technology and make things more ergonomic... then again, NFC hasn't taken off yet, so who knows.
  • Some airports still cant except electronic boarding passes. Flying from Toronto to the US requires a stamp on a physical boarding pass. Still long way to go.
  • Thanks, this is good to know! I remember when smartphone boarding passes were just starting out, they were just as much of a hassle back then, with readers not always working or even turned on, or attendants or security personnel not even knowing what to do with it. That worked itself out but it took about a year before it became common knowledge for the general population. Hopefully smartwatch penetration is quicker but I'm not sure it'll take off yet.
  • Ugh, what an awkward implementation. If I have to view it on my phone first, what good is it on my watch? Posted via Android Central App
  • The last time I tried to use my phone for a boarding pass the MSP airport couldn't handle it. They needed a different scanner to scan the phone and none of their scanners had batteries in them. I'm glad I had printed one out just in case.
  • I fly Southwest out of Phoenix and I have had no problem with using the southwest app and a boarding pass on the phone. All he TSA agents in PHX must be used to it as they don't even look twice. The last flight I took about 2 weeks ago had about 10 people with the boarding pass on thier phone. Smart watch boarding passes will come around with time and more widespread use.
  • That QR code should pop up on your watch the day you fly out and stay there until you click something that says "I'm done with this and don't need it anymore." That's the only way it will work. To have to pull your phone out and do something on it to get it to appear on your watch, when Android Wear is designed to eliminate that very thing (pulling out your phone) is ridiculous.
  • That is basically how it works on iOS with Passbook (except it goes away of some length of time after flight). I am sure this is the next step for Google Now/Wear.
  • I like the subtle judgement of the proper way to wear a watch lol(that's how I wear it too though) Good article, love reading just about anything from you guys, even if it's not something entirely relative to me. Posted via Android Central App
  • Hello parade, meet rain. Posted via Android Central App
  • The last time I used the Fly Delta app, the TSA agent refused to let my wife through security since her mobile boarding pass, listing infant in arms, wasn't good enough for him. He said the ticket had to scan and list infant in arms, so when we scrolled down and showed him how it did, he refused to let us pass. His supervisor eventually said it was fine. I like the convenience of not having to reprint tickets, but that incident showed how some stupidity can mess it up for everyone. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I'm fairly certain that any ill-informed TSA Agent can mess up the procedure for any traveler regardless of whether or technology is used. The same goes for transportation driver, hotel clerk, cable installer and the list goes on and on....
  • A major part of this seems to be that Delta need to write an app with better Android Wear integration. As for scanners, some will be convenient for a watch and others won't. If wearables become very popular, the scanning processes in many places will adjust to meet the use case. Quicker boarding etc is worth money to an airline.
  • does the boarding pass for us airways appear in google now? And if so will it appear on the watch?
  • I used it this past week on delta. I agree a bit of arm contortion is required. But the tsa guy was amazed. It worked pretty well once you get it right. A standalone Android Gear app would be nice to avoid the phone altogether. Using LG G watch.
  • Pretty much my experience right there.
  • I attempted to use my LG Watch @ FLL and the TSA employee was less than happy about it. He summoned a supervisor who asked to see my phone and after some amount of discussion they had me scan my phone and the Supervisor said he needed to talk with DELTA as he was never informed about watches being boarding passes. Typical TSA, but be warned while DELTA maybe cool with smart watch boarding passes TSA at least in FLL was not notified of the change. Dan Posted via Android Central App
  • Heh. The agent here at PNS thought it was cool.
  • The agent in ATL was completely cool with the LG G watch being my boarding pass, though the employee did say he just heard about it being possible to use a smart watch as a boarding pass from the Play Store update to the DELTA Airlines app and not through any official TSA channel. He went on to say that even though he was cool with it, not every TSA employee might be, until TSA updates their training materials. Dan Posted via Android Central App
  • Typical. The flying public has to train the TSA on new rules or technology. But then again there are tens of thousands of agents and I'm sure the lowest priority is informing agents on people using watches to clear security. When I showed my new US passport card in Philadelphia in 2008, a TSA supervisor demanded another form of ID because he clearly didn't get the memo or see the poster showing all the valid forms of ID that could be used to clear security. Fearing detention or some secret behind the curtain TSA procedure, I showed my drivers license. When the agents compared the two IDs, he and the first screener concurred that they matched. Well of course they did..... It will only be a matter of time before the watch as boarding pass is common place and probably in early 2015 after the Apple Watch is released the TSA will finally issue directives to its agents. FWIW, I tried the mobile boarding pass with Delta just last month, but it failed because I had more than one person on my PNR. Well of course I did because if I didn't I'd have to pay $50 in extra baggage fees. Plus, it was easier to just generate paper passes at the same time I checked in my bags. One of these days they'll get everything right....
  • Couldn't you just take the watch off to swipe through instead of twisting and turning to get it to scan?
  • I could. But that wouldn't exactly be making my life any easier, now would it. ...
  • I haven't had a chance to try out Android Wear yet. Can location aware apps push notifications to an Android Wear device based on location? The simple solution (that I've only taken 30 seconds to conceive so it may or may not be doable as things stand now) would be for Delta to push a persistent notification to Android Wear while you're in an airport and have a flight booked through Delta. Possible or not quite there yet?
  • I suspect this will eventually be implemented via NFC once smart watches have NFC. Posted via Android Central App
  • I dont think NFC will be used only because with QR codes, you can support phone/watch AND paper. Paper will not go away. One device to support by the airports instead of a second NFC device.
  • I live in Dubai and mostly travel by EMIRATES AIRLINES..and my smartphone shows me the boarding pass before i board the flight using google now..its really great...so if i get a smartwatch maybe that would be cooler.
  • this is the thing I am learning from my time with my G Watch, so far there hasn't been too many moments of "Oh my freaking goodness how did I ever live without this before?!?!" Most things I can do just as easily with my phone and in some cases Wear has no functionality even though you're led to believe it's there from the advertisements. An example is I can't raise my wrist and have it listen to music for "What song is this?" I can't even say those words to it because all it does is give me Google search results vs what song is playing. Don't get me wrong, I really like the G Watch and know that a lot of my pains with it are just early adopter "growing pains" but it bugs a little when even Google's core apps don't have a full Wear experience out the gate at launch. I know it will get better though and it's still early. Plus I think it's fun being in the mix of what this new platform does and can do.
  • Put the QR code into Wear Codes and you will be able to pull it up straight from the watch.
    Don't help with the scanners though and here in the UK certain airports/airlines want to see the full boarding details in their own app, not just a code.
  • Your experience is interesting. I fly for work about 3 times a week, using the American app on my Moto 360. I like it for security in particular because my 360 doesn't set of the metal detector (for TSA pre.). So I open the boarding pass on my phone before I leave then just keep it in my bag until I get on the plane. It's always a pain to try to stow my phone after security one handed with a line behind me. Although some gate scanners are too narrow for a wrist to fit under requiring the watch to be taken off.