Friday, July 24, 2009

Mobile Device

My morning e-mail included the usual notice from Air Canada urging me to check in online, or on my mobile device. Hey, I have a mobile device now. I think I'll give this a try.

The Internet in the Whitehorse hotel is excruciatingly slow, but I manage to click on the "or check in with your mobile device" link in the e-mail. The page starts to load. Oddly, it seems to be loading the regular Air Canada website, not a page optimized for the mobile, but I give it time. I go and brush my teeth and then return to see, yes it is the regular Air Canada website. It is not the check-in page, but a page of instructions on how to check in online, including a section on how to check in with a mobile. All I have to do is go to, it tells me. I click on those words. Uh I try to click on those words. Although the URL of the website is given multiple times on the page, in a contrasting colour, in no case is it a link.

What were they thinking? All I can come up with is that they were concerned that non-mobile users would attempt to check in using that link and then would be confused when it didn't work. Instead they have decided to inconvenience people who are actively and accurately trying to check in with a mobile device. I can't quite believe they made that decision. I enter the URL in the Safari navigation bar. And it returns an error message. It says Uniquement les dispositifs WML sont autorises a utiliser cette application. Hmm. I was not at that moment familiar with the abbreviation WML, so I assumed it was a French term I didn't know for mobile web-enabled device. I've since learned that it is the same abbreviation in French or English and represents a mobile version of HTML. (Technically of XML, but more people are going to know what HTML is). Either way the error message is telling me that that my device was not qualified to access this site.

I honestly don't know if it is or not. It's a mobile device. It can receive e-mail. But does it use WML? Google found me this unanswered forum question from someone who had the same problem with the same airline almost a year ago. Which is odd, because the feature has a "NEW!" flag on it.

But one way or the other, I want to check in. I know now it would be faster to do it at the gate, but this is technology! Let me make it work! So I go back to the original e-mail and try the "web check-in" option. After more tedious loading I'm back to the Air Canada site, and a page giving me instructions on how to check in on the web, with a link to "check in now." Again, why did it not give me that link in the e-mail, with options to get instructions? I guess because someone who needs instructions on filling out an online form isn't savvy enough to choose to ask for instructions. I mean, it's a form: how hard can it be?

I click "check in now" and get the message "Safari can't open the page because the address is invalid." I don't believe this, so I reclick the link, and this time it works. I'm going to pretend the first time was a hallucination. I have to enter my name, my airport of origin, and my destination. And now the form requires my Aeroplan number or booking reference number. Firetruck! If I go back to the e-mail I'll have to go through this all over again. And did I enter my Aeroplan number when I booked this? I would ordinarily, but I booked it on my colleague's computer without logging in properly, because I rely on my computer or the memory stick to remember things like frequent flyer passwords for me. Fortunately it successfully looks up the booking based on my Aeroplan number. I must have manually entered it. I click continue.

"Please wait while we prepare your request."

It gives me a seat assignment, asks for my number of checked bags, and has me confirm that I am checking no bicycles, firearms, surfboards or antlers. And then it asks if I would like to receive the boarding pass via mobile e-mail. I say yes, enter the e-mail address they already have, and click continue.

It tells me I'm done. I know better. You're not done until you get the boarding pass. I check my e-mail. It has arrived. Load, load, load ... there's a simple one-line e-mail with my flight numbers and itinerary. And then "click the link below to receive your electronic boarding passes. You could also be asked to display this message to airport security." So I leave that message on the screen and open the link below in a new window. Each boarding pass is a little magic eye picture with my seat number on it. I practice a couple of times displaying the boarding pass and the e-mail. I turn off the device and turn it back on again to make sure it's still there, still working. Okay, I can do this.

When I check my bag at the counter, the CSA asks if I have printed a boarding pass. I say no, but I have it on my iPod, and start to show her. She doesn't need to see it. She prints out my bag claim stickers and gives them to me stuck to a piece of paper that is blank on one side and has Warsaw Convention baggage liability rules printed on the other. She sticks the tags to the side with the writing on, not the blank side. Why? Because had I not claimed to have a boarding pass on my iPod, there would have been a boarding pass printed on that side. So the savings accrued to Air Canada so far amount to the ink on the boarding pass.

And now for security. I turn on the iPod and have my magic eye picture all ready to display. I get my big computer out of its bag, put it, my carry-on and my jacket on the x-ray belt and show the iPod to the checker who asks for my boarding pass. Ta-da! I hold up the iPod. The screener takes it and turns it sideways to look at. The gravity feature in the device rotates the display, cutting off the image. "This is a boarding pass?" she asks dubiously.

"That's what Air Canada told me."

She shows the device to another security person. He says, "you have to look at the e-mail. Just make sure it has the right date and airport." No problem. I take the device back and switch screens to the e-mail. There's free wireless in this airport -- I was using it earlier to look at web pages in a different window. So when I switch to the e-mail it tries to reload the page. And it fails. It has the e-mail, but it's an HTML e-mail and the picture has to download from Air Canada's server and it won't. So now I don't have the e-mail and I can't get to it either. I go back out of security and mess with it for fifteen minutes, trying to get it to display. Finally I go back to the Air Canada counter where they print me a paper boarding pass. Security likes that one much better.

I continue to fiddle with the iPod in the departure area until I get the e-mail to display again. As a final gesture of embracing new technology I attempt to board the aircraft by showing my magic eye picture. "We don't have the scanner, do you have the e-mail?" At least she knows what it is. I show the e-mail. It works this time, and she lets me on. I absolutely could have faked that e-mail with less trouble than it took to obtain and display it. It would have got me through security and onto the tarmac, ready to wreak havoc with ... okay maybe Air North isn't a big terrorist target, but I'd have been there!

I did get home. But it's clear that my expectations, Air Canada, Apple, Safari and horrible hotel internet combined into a not-so-good customer experience. I'll try mobile check in again sometime when I have some more iPod-specific software, like a better e-mail program and something to do screen captures. But I think when the fun of complaining about it wears off, I'll go back to the method that takes less time and doesn't require me to hold and hand off a small valuable item in a busy area while burdened with luggage. It's easier to have the iPod stored safely and wave around a piece of easily replaceable paper.


Sarah said...

Very funny! Goes to show what happens when early adopters find out what can go wrong. I love paper myself. No batteries, no internet, very little that can go wrong.

has me confirm that I am checking no bicycles, firearms, surfboards or antlers

You're making that up. Really? Antlers? I am picturing Bullwinkle on a bike with a sidearm attempting to check in with a long board and a long face...

Aviatrix said...

I kid you not, that's Air Canada's standard check-in litany.

Anonymous said...

I have had no problems checking in off my Ipod. The link from the e-mail has always worked for me. I do notice sometimes with the Ipod that if the wifi signal is weak that Safari will not be able to pick up the website. I expect that in your case Safari was timing out rather than the AC site not working right. I have not used the mobile boarding pass as I have heard too many stories of security folks not recognizing it for what it is.

nec Timide said...

An AC pilot I know well asked me (when e-boarding passes first came out) if I used them. I guess cause he knows I've been using PDAs since they were made of clay and inscribe with cuneiform. When I replied in the negative, he said "Don't" and has yet to cancel that restriction.

Two of the things RIM did right with the Blackberry (some would say the only two) the native browser understands WML and HTML. The OS supports multi-tasking for all applications so moving between the browser and mail and back is simple and easy.

Full points for perseverance, and better luck next time.

Capt. Schmoe said...

Technological failure - There's an app for that!!!!

Unknown said...

Great story!

If the itouch is the same as the iphone you can take a screenshot at any time by pressing the top and bottom buttons simultaneously.

dpierce said...

My sides are still sore. I laughed through a good portion of that.

Michael F. Vasseur said...

If you want to take a screen capture on your iPhone or iPod Touch, press the Home button at the bottom while holding the Power button on top. The screen will "flash", and a screen capture should be in your Images.

Geekzilla said...

Now I understand your "I Love Paper" post. Hope your luggage didn't get lost this time.

Hahaha @ surfboards and antlers!

Aviatrix said...

I couldn't get your screen capture advice to work. It kept turning off or offering to shut down instead. I'll try again when I don't have someone waiting to go for a workout with me.

callsignecho said...

Beautiful. I strongly suggest you tell this story to Air Canada. Their "value added" service of online check in is clearly of no value to consumers.

Unknown said...

ISTR reading about a fatal heli-crash caused by antlers slung externally.....caused an abrupt ending to a run-on landing.
At 17 years old, I learned what many Netizens now preach.....never buy the "A" model...myshiny motorbike suffered the weak gearbox and failing electrics which the "b" model addressed...ah, well!
I'm flabbergasted at your touching faith in officialdom! never attempt to try anything outside their comfort-zone....electronic documents surely fall into the "unorthodox, lateral -thinking," category as far as Jobsworth is concerned.

Unknown said...

Air Canada Web Stie is pretty bad for Apple users. It is coded using some Microsoft propietary extensions, so either Safari or Firefox won't work correctly. There are some hacks that can be done in order to cheat the web page and make it believe that you are using IE. And if you compain, they tell you that they respect all the standards.

Ageless Stranger said...

RE: Screenshot. You have to quickly press and release the home and sleep buttons. The screen will flash white and it will make the camera sound. The picture should then be in your gallery. My iPhone is the original 2G 8GB.

Aviatrix said...

After many more iterations of turning my iPod off and on, plus a bit of googling, it turns out that the screenshot trick only works on version two of the firmware, so mine must be version one.

I did tell Air Canada about my experience, but they haven't responded yet.

zb said...

Things I want:

* Paper!

* AM radio (long and medium wave bands preferred over short wave band)!

* Real people at the counter who are able to understand and answer questions.

* Best Viewed with any Browser.

* ... an a screen resolution of at least 640x480

* Even when any browser means no fancy plugins and includes text-only browsers like lynx.

Even with train tickets, I want paper. When we start to rely on mobiles, we tend to forget that they are built as commercial devices, meaning built with firmware that has bugs and is just good enough to work. The firmware is allowed to hang and there are always known issues that have the fallback solution of locking the application and relying on a watchdog reset or, sometimes, a power cycle.

I'm not anti-technology, but as long as cross-platform compatibility works like described above, I prefer reliable over fancy.

Aviatrix said...

Update on the iPod: a $10 download upgraded the unit to version 3.0. Now the screen capture trick works and I can access the app store.