Alaska Eliminates the Need for the Airport Passport Check

Alaska Airlines

When I flew Alaska out of Portland recently, I noticed that there were still kiosks there for international travel. Those machines’ days may be numbered now that Alaska has rolled out a remote passport verification option. This is a promising development, though I’ll admit I don’t fully understand if there are any privacy implications.

We’ve all been there. You’ve checked in online for an international trip and gone to the gate only to have your name called over the loudspeaker. Why? It’s because your passport has to be manually verified by an agent. This step is annoying for the airline, especially since there’s always some guy at Cinnabon who doesn’t get to the gate until the last minute and then acts clueless when agents are continually calling his name over and over.

Alaska is now partnering with Airside — which was recently purchased by Onfido — to enable mobile passport verification. Onfido is not an app meant for tracking dogs named Fido. (It’s pronounced on-fee-doh anyway.) It was the brainchild of three Oxford students who wanted to help streamline the process of identity verification in hiring and finance.

Airside, meanwhile, got its big break as one of the early app providers of the Mobile Passport service for US customs and immigration. That has now been consolidated into a single government app, but Airside moved on to focusing on identity verification for travel purposes. It is powering the current trial with American where AAdvantage members can use their mobile ID if they have TSA Precheck at Washington/National airport. And now, it is doing this project with Alaska. It’s not a surprise to see Onfido pick Airside up since the businesses are complementary.

Airside’s plan is to allow everyone to upload and verify their IDs once. Once that’s done, travelers can use the app to give permission to share that verification with any vendors.

California still doesn’t allow digital driver licenses, so I couldn’t test that, but I was able to upload my passport. First, you have to take a selfie. Then you scan the passport photo page where it parses the machine-readable gobbledy-gook at the bottom. Lastly you have to use NFC on your phone where it can then read the chip in your passport to confirm that it’s valid. (Just a note, it said to put my phone on the photo page to read the chip, but that didn’t work. I had to put it on the back page.) Once this is done, your passport is verified, and it remains there in the system until you need it.

If I were flying internationally on Alaska, I’d just open up the Airside app. In there I pick the service I need, which is Alaska Airlines Mobile Verify. I click on New Trip and then I just have to select my verified document, departure city, departure date, and confirmation number. That information is transmitted back to Alaska and I am ready to go.

This is entirely separate from the check-in process which you’d handle on the Alaska app or website. It’s just that when that process is done, it will show in Alaska’s system that the passport has been verified so no further action is needed. After the initial setup in the app, this is really easy, even if it does require a separate app.

Now the question is, how secure is it? Airside’s website talks about it a lot.

Keep data only in the hands of users. Opt-in, enrollment-based flow puts users in control. By enabling consent-driven, time-bound sharing, you’ll meet complex global and local regulatory compliance laws.

The idea is that you control where your information can be used. The information clearly had to go through Airside’s process to verify in the first place, and I’m assuming it’s not entirely stored on your device but I could be wrong. The way it is set up, the information can only be shared with entities with which you want to share. And if you change your mind, you can always revoke your consent to share that information.

I built a fake trip on the app just to see how it would work. I gave consent, info was sent to Alaska, and all was well. But then I went back in and revoked that consent. It’s pretty intuitive.

Every time I go into the app, I used biometrics to get in, but you can also use a password. I know that every time my phone locked or I navigated to another app, as soon as I came back it required verification again. So it feels secure in that sense, at least.

I’d love to hear from some privacy experts about how secure this is and whether there’s anything to be concerned about. It does appear that the company takes it seriously, and since Onfido is UK-based, I assume that means it abides by far stricter rules than are required here in the US.

Alaska and American obviously trust the company, as does the federal government. I can see this making things a lot easier in the future as more vendors begin to accept digital identification.

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27 comments on “Alaska Eliminates the Need for the Airport Passport Check

  1. I would opt out of using that service. You can make things look as slick as you want, but at the end of the day you don’t know how they’re actually storing the data, where it’s stored, or who has access, and there’s no information about whether or how the data is encrypted at rest. –They might be very secure, but there’s just no way to tell.

    1. Same. All it takes is a single hack & poof. You’ll have some extremely irate passengers who already have doubts about functioning our government or lack there of.

  2. I just used this at DCA on AA. Skipped the CLEAR and PreCheck lines since they have their own line. Super fast and free!!!

  3. Maybe I’m missing something but for international travel I’ve been uploading a scan of my passport to the United app for years. You scan it once, it’s saved in your profile, and when you fly internationally you select it at check-in in the app. No need to have your passport verified at the airport other than flashing it at boarding like normal.

    1. United IT is geberally way ahead of Alaska IT. Alaska just farmed this out to a third party. United does have a bit more robust of an international presence than Alaska.

    2. I concur, and not just in USA. In some countries you have no alternative. Scan your passport or else.

  4. I dont quite get the concern. As another poster noted, you upload your passport for other apps, such as United, or enter the info into a form. Hotels if foreign countries make photo copies of it, and who knows what happens to the copies.

    Your flight data is well known to the credit card companies and whoever they sell the layer 3 data to.

    Whats the privacy risk? There are far easier ways to steal your identity and unless you are a billionaire you are probably not going to be targeted specifically.

    Sure, no one wants to get hacked, or have their identity stolen, but any site that has that information is a target/risk. Banks, 401k, etc…. Why would this have *MORE* risk.

  5. Essentially requiring passengers to have a smartphone on which they’re willing and able to install both the airline’s app and this third party app with internet service at check in time for every international trip (especially for the return, outside the passenger’s home country) seems unreasonable to me. Certainly no problem for tech savvy people, but definitely a problem for my in-laws and my spouse, for different reasons in all three cases amongst those three people: hating reliance on cell phones, getting frustrated easily when things don’t work smoothly (and they won’t the first time), and challenges using technology. It’s fine to have this option, but essentially forcing it on people seems like a really bad idea.

    WestJet has something similar. It’s only worked half the time for me in two recent international round trips. Had to go to an agent to verify docs the other times.

    1. I agree with you, Alex. I travel to Canada frequently, and even with T-Mobile my phone doesn’t work in Canada like a native Canadian phone. I can call and text but apps are very problematic. I know the same is true for Canadians visiting the US.

      Now I know there are some technophiles who buy native sim cards and switch them out and the like, but I’m not that savvy and that sounds like a pain anyway.

      I do wonder how this app handles NEXUS. I never have a problem with Air Canada, but Delta often balks at the card. They’ll tell me the card is not valid, then call a red coat, who will repeat that it’s not valid, then check Timatic, read that it is valid for travel to Canada, not believe it, call a supervisor, then finally accept the valid travel document. IF the app is appropriately written (a pretty big IF), this type of confusion could be avoided. (NEXUS is a breeze on arrival and coming back from Canada.)

        1. Exactly this. All DL (and other carriers) ask is for your trusted traveler number. My number was originally a Global Entry number. At renewal I switched to NEXUS because it has more features for much much less than Global Entry or Pre-check. Crossing the land border at the Ambassador Bridge is a breeze. But when I changed from one product to another, my TTN number did not change. The number doesn’t identify the product.

      1. Heh. I’m an American living (permanently) in Canada and I use T-Mobile for data. I visit the US often enough (every month, though driving rather than flying 95% of the trips) that a majority of my data usage is in the US, and it’s so much cheaper to have a US plan than a Canadian one and I find that it works flawlessly. I do have a Canadian e-SIM as a backup, mostly to have a Canadian number for incoming calls and SMS. But your point stands, and I’m pretty tech saavy.

        Same experience re NEXUS. WestJet and Air Canada very much know what it is and know that it’s valid for air travel with no passport (although WestJet often incorrectly insists on seeing the passport, even if it’s actually the NEXUS card I use to verify). This is a potential problem as we’ll have some US travel which will probably be while a kid’s passport is being renewed. US-based airlines have no clue and often will not accept a NEXUS card. Certainly they can’t verify a NEXUS card online, whereas the Canadian airlines can. (Obviously travel that can be done on a NEXUS card is a very large fraction of the Canadian airlines’ business and a small fraction of the US airlines’ business.)

  6. I am not that concerned about the privacy and data security issue. If some one really want to get your info, it is probably out there somewhere up for grab anyways.
    From a customer experience point of view, I wonder if they can handle non-US passport and VISA. Given Alaska’s limited global reach, non-US passport holder is probably a minority of their customer base. But for the big 3, it will be different on some routes. Until that is resolved, passport check is here to stay.

    1. Wany – As of now it handles US and Canada passports, but I think the plan is to expand over time. Those were just the ones that mattered most.

  7. As mentioned earlier, United has passport scanning built into the app, including the NFC part IIRC. Guessing Alaska doesn’t have the scale needed to build this out internally, and having a single company handling it that’s known for ID verification anyway seems like a solid route.

    Now if only Delta would pick up on this…Fly Ready is all well and good but there’s still the docs check that’s needed to happen.

  8. It’s great to verify the passport ahead of time, but does anyone check that you’re carrying it with you when you get on the plane? If not, then you may have trouble entering your destination.

    Also, are there country or citizenship restrictions? If you leave the U.S. on a round-trip ticket with a non-U.S. passport, the airline is supposed to verify on departure that you have the documents that will allow you back in on your return (green card or visa). Can the app handle this?

    And what about multiple passports? It’s fairly common for dual citizens traveling between their country of residence and country of origin to have to use different passports for each country. Airlines have the internal systems to handle this, but it’s rare to find an airline that allows you to enter multiple passport information online; you usually need to do this at the counter.

    1. Ron – As of now, Airside only allows US and Canadian passports, but you can store as many as you want in there. Eventually it will expand. So when you submit a trip, you’ll be able to select the passport you want to share for that flight.

      1. Given they are part of OneWorld with many foreign and dual national travelers connecting from an AS flight to a partner flight with a non-US/CA passport, it seems fairly silly to have this limited to US/CA passports.

    2. I’m not sure if it happens on every flight, but I’ve been on international flights where the boarding agent will want to see the picture page of the passport along with the boarding pass itself before they’ll let you on to the jetway. They’re not scanning it (at least in the US), just visually verifying it.

      1. That does happen on every international flight I’ve been on on any airline. They always verify that you’re holding a passport in your hand and that the name matches your ticket. (They don’t verify that it’s the same passport you used when your documents were checked; that would slow down boarding a lot.)

  9. I just just used it with AA at DCA 20 minutes ago at TSA.

    There was a TSA rep shouting about the benefits of using the app at the start of the Pre line, and pointing to sign up. I had received an email from AA earlier and signed up with my drivers license.

    In line I called up the app, generated a QR code. When the shouty TSA rep saw I had it she let me bypass the line like I was a clear customer. She was so happy to see someone use it!!

    It was quick and easy to set up and to use.

    1. The irony is that during the Airside trial at DFW, I guess it never worked, since the lane is never open, and the TSA agent said it never worked properly.

  10. “ We’ve all been there. You’ve checked in online for an international trip and gone to the gate only to have your name called over the loudspeaker. Why? It’s because your passport has to be manually verified by an agent. ”

    Not with Alaska flights, no. Because they won’t even issue me a boarding pass or even let me checkin online. Have to go see a ticket counter agent with my passport to get the boarding pass and the passport scanned into their system for the umpteenth time. Even if the Alaska flight is domestic, connecting to an international partner flight.

    And the cherry on top of that cake? The partner then will indeed want to do a doc check again at 5e gate, because AS apparently does not transmit that information to AY, FI, DE, or BA (my experiences just in the last two years).

    I don’t understand why AS couldn’t make a deal to license the functionality for incorporation into their own app if they couldn’t develop it themselves. Seems ridiculous to have a 3rd party app involved.

  11. AS is unable to deal with anyone who doesn’t have a USA or Canada passport. Literally their IT cannot deal with other nationalities at all.

    Even though they are a Oneworld member, you cannot check in for a flight to Canada or anywhere else outside USA if you hold a foreign passport.

    In comparison, once UA has captured my passport and green card, everything works seamlessly. Not so with Alaska, you have to go to a counter, and the staff aren’t efficient with it.

    Maybe Alaska should spend some IT investment to support travelers who do not have USA or Canada passports. They are a Oneworld member. I imagine that there are third party technology solutions that make this possible.

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