Written whilst not travelling and despatched to silicon.com from an open wi-fi hotspot just outside Ipswich in Suffolk, UK

Following a recent blog on travelling, several readers have aired their frustrations at the current state of check-in technology. Normally I wouldn’t include reader’s original communications in a blog but there were so many people describing the same problem set I thought I would make an exception. So without identifying the individual readers and/or airlines, here goes:

Airline quote: “Our customers have told us that they are looking for ways to save precious time where possible, so we have developed user-friendly self-service check-in systems… to help ease their journey through the airport.”

Customer experience one: “I would agree that I want my journey through the airport to be as easy as possible but I have to tell you that on my last three flights the new self-service check-in systems caused me nothing but stress and frustration.”

Customer experience two: “I was flying with my family and tried the self-service system. Whilst I could check in using my credit card, my children could not be identified, as they don’t have credit cards! After 15 frustrating minutes at the self-service kiosk, I then had to queue for regular check-in, ask the clerk to cancel my boarding pass and reissue passes for adjacent seating. This caused a lot of unnecessary time wasting until we were finally checked in to adjacent seats.”

My observation: I have long held the view that we need two kinds of airports, one for professionals and one for tourists. In the former people know what they are doing and are experienced, and tend to have complex flight plans and needs, and moreover they are willing to pay for service. In the latter, flying is an occasional event and generally a simple point A to B plan with an emphasis on low cost and minimal service.

As it is today, the only solution to complex check-in I have come up with is to get an airline card for every member of the family. And of course you can always check-in and print the tickets at home or the office 24 hours before you fly.

But the real problem is clear! The people who designed these check-in systems never travel or fly anywhere, and they have therefore applied simple-minded conceptual thinking to a complex problem set. Hey, when was the last time you saw this phenomenon? Try checking into a hotel or buying anything at an electronic point of sale!

Customer experience three: “I was flying with my wife and had previously had bad experiences with the self-service check-in, so I decided to go the regular route. We were dismayed that only four regular check-in desks were operating compared to twice that number of Fast Bag drop desks. All regular check-in customers were being visibly penalised at the expense of the self-service customers, causing us yet more stress and frustration.”

My observation: I like it – penalise away! Those amateur travellers carrying two- to five-fold more kit than they really need are a very expensive menace. They clog up airports and make flying more expensive for everyone else. See my recent blog about my personal solution to travel – travelling ultra-light with two bags max into the overhead bin no matter what the destination or duration!

Customer experience four: “I have been involved in the design and implementation of IT systems, I know there are always teething problems, but it seems to me that as a matter of urgency the airlines need to:

  1. Modify systems to allow self-service check-in of family groups
  2. Ensure sufficient regular check-in desks are available to meet the customer needs, particularly for disabled and non-IT competent travellers
  3. Provide an effective process for capturing customer complaints

My observations: I agree with most of the above list – but here are some specifics:

  1. Absolutely agree – and it ain’t all that hard. In the meantime get all family members airline cards – as I suggested above – and book your seats online and print tickets before you even leave home. Then get rid of all those bags if you can! With really little ones this is hard as the amount of kit required seems to be inversely proportional to their size! If you get it all sorted you really can bypass check-in and go straight to immigration.
  2. This is a cost issue, and people perhaps ought to suffer the pain of being amateur travellers – after all they inconvenience everyone else around them. The IT incompetent are gradually sliding into the minority and will suffer in the same way as people who cannot read – it really is a new form of disability. If they cannot solve the problem themselves I’m not at all sure it is anyone else’s problem – it really does rest with them and them alone! As for anyone with a real disability – just call the airline ahead of time, explain the situation and they will generally send someone to help you through the trauma of check-in.
  3. YES, YES, YES! If only companies would do this. And if only I could only be god for a day I would condemn the designers of all these airport systems to continually fly around the world for three years so they could be victims of their own crap designs and systems. Negotiating an airport when you are alert and fresh, and you do it every day, is one thing – try doing it when you have been on the move for two weeks with little sleep and it is your fifth country and eighth airport. It soon gets to the point when you can’t even find the men’s room let alone get on the right plane!