(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

As Washington residents woke up to an unprecedented subway shutdown on Wednesday, I was stuck halfway across the country fuming over an entirely different kind of transportation fail.

Yesterday, 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. The screenshot below was taken about 15 minutes after my arrival at the checkpoint, when I gave up trying to make my flight.


(Brian Fung / The Washington Post)

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.

What.

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 both 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.

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