The Infuriating Rule American Airlines Won’t Tell You About Until It’s Too Late


By Brian Fung

This week, I was stuck halfway across the country fuming over a transportation fail.

Wednesday, 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.

It’s an edge case, to be sure. The problem can be avoided if you have the opportunity to download and save your boarding pass ahead of time. But as any harried traveler knows, sometimes that opportunity doesn’t present itself. Maybe you’re in a rush and have only a few minutes in between meetings to deal with flights. Maybe your mobile Internet connection gets cut off. Maybe you’re just an idiot who delayed downloading it until later.

None of that matters. If you don’t retrieve your boarding pass before boarding starts, then it’s as if you never checked in to begin with. You’ll show up to the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint empty-handed, with no boarding pass to show. In short, you will be in for a nasty surprise.

This policy isn’t limited to the boarding passes you can download to your phone, either, according to Ross Feinstein, an American Airlines spokesperson.

“Once the boarding process begins, you can’t retrieve your boarding pass for the first time,” Feinstein confirmed.


The origin of this, an American Airlines ticketing agent told me, is that the boarding state causes the computer that handles passenger records to kick into a different mode, excluding anyone from the manifest who has yet to generate their boarding pass. The cutoff takes effect about 30 minutes before any domestic flight’s departure time, according to officials.

There’s no mention of this 30-minute cutoff on the American Airlines mobile boarding pass webpage, nor on its page for check-in and arrival times.

Initially, Feinstein seemed reluctant to disclose the existence of the policy, blaming the problem instead on my failure to check in.

“The lockout is if you didn’t check in by the cutoff time,” he told me. Except that I had checked in, at around 6:20 p.m. the day before.

Feinstein then pressed me to admit that I hadn’t downloaded the boarding pass to my phone after I checked in.

“Did you ever load the boarding pass?” he asked. “Did you ever see the QR code or the boarding pass at all? Did you load it into [Apple] Passbook? I know the answer to all of these questions is no. If you had, the QR code would have been on your phone.”

This is a point that I am freely willing to concede. It’s a great point! Except it isn’t the point I’m actually trying to get American to address, which is this: When you tap the big, fat link in the American Airlines app that says “BOARDING PASS,” that is exactly what you should get, no matter if it’s a day before doors close or a minute. Nowhere is it clearly stated that the link will go dead some ambiguous time before departure as you’re scrambling to get to the airport through unholy amounts of vehicular traffic.

It’s unclear whether other major airlines have the same policy; I’ve reached out to them and will update when I hear back. Jetblue tells me that although it does close flights a half-hour before departure, potentially putting passengers in a similar situation, the company is also beginning to experiment with automatic check-in, which automatically sends you your boarding pass via email without having you take the extra step. A Delta spokesperson simply referred me to its check-in FAQ, but did not mention a policy on boarding passes.

A spokesperson for the Federal Aviation Administration said there are no federal regulations governing boarding procedures.

If American decides to keep its policy on boarding passes, perhaps it could update its app to reflect these restrictions.

But, as its name implies, a boarding pass is meant for one thing: to allow you to get through security and onto your plane during the boarding period. Whether you’re actually able to do so shouldn’t depend on something so arbitrary as whether you pulled it up once already before boarding began.

(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Brian Fung 



  1. Here’s a brilliant idea: Plan to arrive at the airport at least two hours before your flight. That way, you should at least get there before the forty-minute cutoff period. Don’t wait till the last minute and then blame the airlines for your stupidity.

  2. We arrived two hours before flight time , got a boarding pass, spent over an hour in line for American customs, got to the gate while the plane was boarding , and were told that due to overbooking there was only one seat left. The boarding pass did not help.

  3. American is by far the worst airline!!!! They made me miss a flight because my bag was a little bigger than their asinine policy allowed for!

  4. I suppose the flight was full, i.e. overbooked. As the check-in desk opens, so does the waiting list, and with some airlines also stand-by passengers are requested to already be at the airport (although their seats are not confirmed till later). The passenger’s booking would appear as unconfirmed, and sure the check-in desk or customer assistance desk can provide a boarding pass, but not if it means kicking someone else off the flight list and having to compensate them. Flights are not remotely what they used to be in the 50s, but how many people could afford flying in the 50s? If indeed someone is stuck in traffic and cant get a connection to the internet from our ever-present gadgets, then one should call the airline and ask them to please print out the boarding pass and hold it for us at the desk. Airlines, with all their shortcomings, tend to assist us paying passengers if we ask.

    The TSA is far from perfect, but here I don’t see how they can be blamed. They, and federal rules, don’t allow people in the sterile zone except passengers, staff or accompanying persons (of minors or disabled people). But, even assuming TSA had somehow allowed this passenger to get to the gate, I would think there was no seat for him; else, the airline would promptly have printed out a boarding pass AND sent an accompanying employee to get him fast through security (eg via a staff or first-class queue) so that the passenger flies instead of a zero-revenue empty seat.

  5. American threw my son off a flight because a very nasty and vile passenger lied and claimed he “threatened” him. He didn’t mention the obscenities he hurled at my son because he was taking “too long” to get settled into his seat. Yeah, my son said something back, I’m sure. But he didn’t threaten anyone.
    As his father, I was escorted off the flight as well. They didn’t care when I tried to tell them I was going to Los Angeles to be mesader kiddushin at a chasunah the following night.
    The captain came to explain that he made the decision for the safety of all passengers. What a joke. Who knows, maybe that vile passenger was a friend of his.
    Even the eight (!!!) police officers who were called to escort us off the flight later apologized claiming they were just doing their job.
    I wrote a letter to American. They just blew me off.

  6. I agree that there was no seat, the gentleman must have had his standby ticket by the time check-in closed, and yet his name wasn’t called as the flight was full already. We can also infer his fare was not full economy nor business. Question: why does the Washington Post seek tourist fare for their employees, who after all are flying on business, and then possibly threatens the airline with articles focusing on a supposed miscommunication?

    I’ve got a piece of advice for airlines. Prohibit reimboursement of any ticket except business class, full economy, and I would add first class except it no longer exists. I’ve seen ivy-league university employees, journalists, and even politicians fly on tourist fare. Sometimes even on students’ fare. Fine, as long as they meet the requirements and pay for it out of their pocket; but having multibillion dollar enterprises make money out of rules which are supposed to let a bigger share of the population benefit from air transport was not likely what Ronald Reagan had in mind with his deregulation.

  7. The TSA should be abolished. They serve no purpose other than to steal tax money and give it to a bunch of losers looking to milk the government

  8. To all the anti-airlines people posting:
    1. Get to the airport at least 2 hours ahead of time. 3 if international. (And start checking in and going through security ASAP!)
    2. Do not include travel time in the times listed above. 2 hours AT the airport.
    3. Look up baggage restrictions online. It isn’t hard. They made their rules so follow them.
    4. After doing #3, look at all the other rules. Like what can be brought through security. How to travel with kids.
    5. No one should need to hold up the line to be told “take off the jacket” 4 times. Same with shoes, belts, money in the pockets or anything else that normal people should know. And if you are part of the .00001% of Americans who never flew before- ASK ahead of time and LOOK online!!!!

  9. To “Be reasonable”

    I am not anti-airlines. I support quite a lot airlines, with money that is to say.

    That said
    1. I take the plane because I am in a hurry. Certainly not for the service or the glamour. What about you?
    2. see point 1, and in addition, there exist people who do not travel on Shabbos (sorry airlines, I totally realize you have flights every day, yet I am not using them all) and I have time constraints at my destination, such as getting things done, so I can get paid and, among other things, purchase flight tickets. I also have constraints on returning home. See, I pay for my ticket, I don’t receive it from the sovietic committee or whatever. If I received it free from the state, I would put up with the schedule (although I would complain, as Soviet citizens did), but I have to pay —-> the airline accommodates me and my needs, in exchange for the money I pay. It’s as easy and as simple as that.
    3. I hardly ever have any baggage! That said, when airlines charge carrying a couple of extra Kg as much as if it were a spacecraft or a wooden hydroplane from the 30s, and simultaneously have no problem allowing super-extra-overweight passengers without blinking an eye, I don’t comment since I am neither overweight nor have extra bags, but please, go lecture someone else.
    4. Security rules are pathetic, as proven by the paying cargo rules of the same airline (cargo is stowed in the same aircrafts, and in fact, it is sometimes the reason our checking luggage does not take off). Rules are also not hard to break, I will only say flight safety has a component of luck and a component of intelligence and security, but I’d have to ask my lawyer to specify how much of either. I additionally realize that some “childfree-friendly” staff would rather that young passengers did not exist, and I make sure to remind them that paying passengers, children or otherwise, are the reason they have a job. I recommend you do the same.
    5. When we will be an elderly gentleman or lady, assuming we get old (as opposed to not becoming old, which sadly and unfortunately is an open option to every one of us who is not old yet), perhaps we will forget, perhaps we will be annoyed, perhaps we won’t have the strength. Then again perhaps we will not fly and we will have to take a bus and spend 20 hours for the ride, it all depends on our children, if we love them they will love us back and purchase us flight tickets! All the elderly gentlemen and ladies in line have loving children who bought them plane tickets. MAY WE MERIT THE SAME!!! They are not super-rich, those other people have a private jet (good for them), but they have loving children, which is awesome! And if we are late and are worried about missing our flight, I have a piece of confirmed news, if we kindly ask, usually people will allow us to pass in front of them! Try it.