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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Time to relieve the stress and frustration of airport infrastructure

'Airline check in dates back to the beginning of airline travel when we had paper tickets'

Passengers enter the security control area at Helsinki airport in Finland. Airlines are realising that they must improve the process of ticketing and boarding. Lehtikuva/Antti Aimo-Koivisto/via Reuters
Passengers enter the security control area at Helsinki airport in Finland. Airlines are realising that they must improve the process of ticketing and boarding. Lehtikuva/Antti Aimo-Koivisto/via Reuters

Airports are the gateway through which we escape our daily drudgery.

They allow us to wing our way to vacations, family reunions, even business junkets. But tainting every trip in almost every facility is the prospect of stress and frustration that comes with negotiating an infrastructure that envelops us from fare shopping to seat belt-click.

There is the ticketing counter, the kiosks, the bag check, the bag claim, security queues, pat downs, crowded gates, boarding pass scans, jet bridge loitering, overhead bin battles - you get the idea. And that is not even a full review of the pain points. There has to be an easier way.

This resistance to the unhindered flow of travellers has not escaped the airlines who are partially to blame for it. They are spending large sums for technology to ease your journey, and the day is not terribly far off when your eyeball or fingerprint will guide you through security, airport lounges, and boarding gate. That day, however, is not this day.

In the West, Delta Air Lines recently struck a tiny blow for greater transit efficiency by automatically checking-in some passengers for their flights and putting an electronic boarding pass in the traveller’s Delta mobile app. The change eliminates the traditional “It’s time to check in” reminder. Currently, Delta allows auto check-in only for those who use the airline’s mobile app, are travelling domestically, and have enrolled in its SkyMiles loyalty programme. Some airlines, including JetBlue Airways and easyJet, allow you to pay the bag fee upfront when booking, but you still have to go to the counter to drop it off.

This raises some obvious questions: why must airline customers still check-in at all? And why is a boarding pass divorced from the ticket sale? Shouldn't one be able to obtain both simultaneously? And will paper ever disappear entirely from air travel?

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“They haven’t escaped the 1920s - seriously,” says Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst at Atmosphere Research Group. “Airline check in dates back to the beginning of airline travel when we had paper tickets.”

The process, however, does serve a purpose important to airline bottom lines. It remains a decent proxy for how many people will miss a flight, helping carriers manage no-shows and fill those empty spots. These days, you typically lose your seat if you do not check in at least 30 to 45 minutes ahead of a flight. But with ever-rising load factors feeding robust, year-round stand-by lists, tracking no-shows is less important given that the carrier will almost certainly fill the seat.

For airlines like Delta, one procedural hiccup to thinning check-in queues is the federal mandate that each traveller acknowledge the items prohibited aboard airplanes - ie, no toxic chemicals or explosives may be brought aboard. This currently happens during check-in. Delta deals with this by putting the images of banned items on a screen in its app, ahead of access to one’s boarding pass.

In addition, by reducing the number of times you interact with a carrier, the airline is also cutting the number of times it can sell you a cabin upgrade, extra-legroom seats, additional frequent-flier miles, Wi-Fi access - all add-ons that are commonly offered on airline Web sites and at airport kiosks.

Moreover, despite years of airline efforts to have you book directly on their websites, millions of passengers prefer to buy from online travel agencies or, in the case of business travel, must use their corporate travel department. That means the airline does not always have an email or phone number to solicit for that extra revenue.

Still, for travelers weary of paper and bureaucracy, change is coming. Next up may be boarding passes via email for everyone, Harteveldt said, matching the wide use of e-passes currently offered via airline mobile apps. The ubiquity of smartphones also means that airlines are very likely to eliminate paper, one day, and the number of social messaging platforms - from Facebook to WhatsApp to Twitter - offers airlines plenty of places to conduct these transactions, even for people not keen to download a carrier’s app.

“You take a crawl, walk, run approach,” Mr Harteveldt says. “I think within two years or so this could become the industry norm, or at least widely used.”