Airport check-in counters evolved from physical in-person counters to digital self-service kiosks, but now many seek to bring the human touch back into the check-in experience.

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Tags: airport design, sorting,
psychology, waiting time


Design Decisions

A passenger’s first procedure upon entering an airport is most likely at the check-in counter, where their tickets and reservations are accepted, check-in bags taken, boarding passes printed, and special travel accommodations arranged.

Historically, check-in counters were staffed with human agents behind tables ready to assist travelers with their individual needs. As the number of fliers rose over the years, queues to these check-in counters grew out of hand, and airlines began to adopt online check-in options, or digital kiosks. Online and digital kiosk check-in allowed passengers to bypass queues.

Patent for touch screen check-in kiosk

However, in response to complaints about usability and customer service, numerous airlines have sought to bring the human touch back into the check-in experience, such as Delta Airlines’s “Red Coats” program [1]. These human agents do not displace the automatic kiosks but instead work alongside them to provide technology assistance as well as addressing any special needs.

Effects on Passengers

Scene from “Meet the Parents”: The main character becomes exasperated by an airline representative who declines to help him. The scene highlights how the physical separation of by the counter contributes to the hierarchy.

Websites, mobile apps, and self-service kiosks have expanded the number of available touchpoints for passengers to complete the check-in process, allowing passengers without special requirements to move quickly through the process and giving passengers with special needs the ability to receive assistance with priority.

The decision to move human agents out from behind the counter to alongside the passengers at these kiosks has also changed the relationship between passengers and representatives of an airline. There is a lower chance for aggression to develop when the person helping the passenger is next to the passenger rather than across and separated by a physical counter [2].

Scene from “Computer says No!” by Little Britain: The main character, a travel agent in this scene, always responds to a customer’s enquiry by responding with “Computer says No” to even the most reasonable of requests. The customer is left unable to dispute it, because of their inability to see the computer screen themselves.


What if check-in counters were replaced with biometric scanners?

Some airlines are starting to experiment with biometric and facial recognition scanners that allow for passengers to board planes without a passport or form of identification [3]. People may check-in online, drop off their checked-in luggage, walk up to security, and look at a camera. After two seconds, the camera confirms the passenger’s identity and allows them access to enter the airport waiting area. Delta has implemented a facial recognition system in JFK airport which scans people prior to boarding.

Privacy issues may be a concern with this new technology, as passengers are not in control of the information being given or handled by the controlling parties.

What if there was a way to share resources among airline companies?

The airport lobby is often filled with passengers and long queues, and hall allocation is typically not organized in the most effective use of space. Pooling collective resources among airline companies and having a single point of check-in may reduce the amount of stress experienced by the passengers [4]. Implementing a common-use self-check and baggage drop off system would improve the use of existing spatial capacity. Companies have already developed a block-chain system that allows passengers to scan their ticket and print a unique baggage tag for their respective airline. By sharing this resource, airports would also be able to defer expansion investments when new airlines are added.

  1. Peterson, Barbara S. 2009. “Putting Some Personal Contact Back Into Flying.” The New York Times, July 27, 2009, sec. Business Day.
  2. Gladwell, Malcolm, and Paco Underhill. n.d. “New Yorker Conference: Deconstructing the Airport.” The New Yorker Videos. Accessed August 30, 2019.
  3. Stewart, J. (2018, November 21). “Creepy or Not, Face Scans Are Speeding up Airport Security.” Retrieved June 13, 2020.
  4. V. (2019, March 27). “Reinventing the airport check-in experience”. Interional Airport Review. Retrieved June 13, 2020.