August 12, 2022

Often airlines have policies that they probably don’t put much thought into, but that can really damper the passenger experience. In this post I wanted to share one of those that I recently experienced at Belgrade Airport, prior to my Air Serbia flight to New York.

Long story short, I ended up (unnecessarily, in my opinion) waiting in a line for around an hour, and nearly missed my flight (or so I thought).

Air Serbia’s absurd mobile boarding pass policy

I was flying Air Serbia business class from Belgrade to New York. The flight was scheduled to depart at 7:50AM. I had checked in online for my flight, and was issued a mobile boarding pass. I enjoyed spending some time at the Air Serbia Premium Lounge, and headed to the gate just under 90 minutes before departure, which obviously seemed plenty early.

Air Serbia departure gate for New York

When I got to the person checking IDs and boarding passes at the gate, she said “we need a printed boarding pass, go to the transfer desk.” I asked if it wasn’t just possible for her to print the boarding pass, but she said the only option was the transfer desk.

Hmmm… okay, if everyone with a mobile boarding pass needs to go to the transfer desk, I assumed there would at least be an efficient setup. Well, I assumed wrong. When I got to the the transfer desk, I found a really long line, with just two agents working.

Air Serbia transfer desk line

At this point I walked to the Air Serbia Lounge, thinking that the agent there would be able to print my boarding pass, since typically that’s a service offered in airline lounges. Nope, the agent there said that wasn’t possible, and I had to go to the transfer desk.

So I got in line, and the wait ended up taking over an hour. It was extremely frustrating how slow the line was moving. It wasn’t just that there were only two people working, but it was also that helping each person took forever.

For example, in front of me was someone who was traveling on Wizz Air and missed her flight, and the Air Serbia agent probably spent five minutes explaining to her that she couldn’t help, because this was the Air Serbia transfer desk.

Some of the other passengers were traveling to New York, and that wasn’t an efficient process either, as there were lots of language barriers.

Agent: “I need your address in the United States.”
Passenger: “What?”
Agent: “Where are you staying in the United States?”
Passenger: “New Jersey.”
Agent: “But I need the address.”
Passenger: “I go to New Jersey.”

Then they’d have to phone up relatives to translate the whole conversation, etc.

I was toward the back of the line, and at this point I was worried I would miss the flight. Even though I initially went to the gate 85 minutes before departure, it was 15 minutes before departure by the time that I was helped. I ended up having my boarding pass issued around 10 minutes before scheduled departure, and then sprinted to the gate.

Of course I was a bit bummed that I would probably be the last to board, since I always try to get cabin pictures with as few people as possible. If it’s any consolation, at least boarding was delayed significantly, and hadn’t even started by the time that I got to the gate (even though the flight still showed as on-time).

At least boarding hadn’t started

This is a pretty bad passenger experience

I tend to think our impressions of travel experiences with airlines and hotels are often formed at the margins. For example, my biggest takeaway from my Hyatt Regency Belgrade stay was the friendly night auditor who insisted that she prepare me a coffee for my 4AM departure.

Conversely, the thing I remember most about my Air Serbia experience is standing in line for an hour, wondering if I’d miss my flight to New York because Air Serbia has a weird system in place for requiring physical boarding passes:

  • Air Serbia either just shouldn’t allow mobile boarding passes for New York flights, or should inform passengers in advance (during the mobile check-in process) that a printed boarding pass from the transfer desk is required
  • The Belgrade to New York flight is Air Serbia’s “flagship” route, so you’d think the airline would have a dedicated section at the gate where this could be handled, rather than sending passengers to a transfer desk, where they are in line with others who miss their flight, etc.
  • I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if my flight had operated on-time; I went to the gate nearly 90 minutes before departure, yet only got to the gate with a valid boarding pass 10 minutes before departure, when Air Serbia claims the boarding gate for New York closes 40 minutes before departure
  • And never mind the fact that most airlines provide some level of premium service for business class passengers, while in this case there was no separate business class queue, and the lounge attendant couldn’t help
  • What would have happened if a flight was canceled and there were hundreds of people in line for the transfer desk?

I’ve taken a lot of flights in my life, but I’ve never had to wait over an hour in line just to get a printed boarding pass for a flight I already had a valid boarding pass for.

Air Serbia’s one & only Airbus A330

Bottom line

While minor in the grand scheme of things, Air Serbia has a policy whereby you need a printed boarding pass for flights to New York, even though Air Serbia’s website will issue a mobile boarding pass. This wouldn’t be an issue, except for the fact that you need to go to a transfer desk to get your boarding pass, and the line there can be really long.

I spent over an hour in line wondering if I was about to miss my flight because of this inefficient system. So if you take this flight, consider this a warning about your mobile boarding pass — either go to the check-in desk (which wasn’t open yet when I got to the airport), or go to the transfer desk really, really early.

Has anyone else experienced this Air Serbia transfer desk policy?

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