Is check-in dead?

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Airlines have made strides towards automating check-in. Could this be a sign that the age-old process is becoming redundant? Louise Driscoll reports.

Airlines have invested heavily in migrating check-in to more cost-effective self-service platforms. Today 50% of passengers check in via a kiosk, web or mobile device, according to IATA, which forecasts this will climb to 70% by 2013. Likewise, responses in the latest Airport IT Trends Survey published by Airline Business, Airports Council International and SITA, see self-service as the primary means of passenger processing at 71% of airports by 2012.

While the switch from paper to e-ticketing has opened up the floodgates to add flexibility to the check-in process, at the other end of the spectrum some airlines are starting to dispense with the passenger's need to check in altogether on certain flight segments.

grim reaper checking in dom ray 
Air New Zealand strategy manager, airports, David Todd believes check-in is becoming increasingly irrelevant. "It's a largely regulatory-driven process [that] has more to do with satisfying external agencies than airline-specific requirements. For customers, check-in is a hurdle, holding little value," he says.

Air New Zealand allows domestic passengers to skip check-in, with seating allocation and boarding passes issued at the booking stage. Customers without bags can proceed to the gate without checking in. It is part of the airline's "buy and fly" strategy to streamline the passenger journey as well as transform the role of check-in, from "operationally-centric" roots to a "customer-centric" model, Todd points out.

He adds: "Many traditional check-in functions, such as accepting bags and seat allocation, can now be completed at the time of booking, or off-airport. Accepting baggage is the last tangible process left over from the traditional check-in model, but even now we are seeing that move away from the airport into non-traditional models."

IATA says many passengers travelling with baggage question why web check-in is necessary, if they must queue at a bag-drop desk. But the body believes check-in will not disappear completely; it will just be increasingly simplified and automated.

If a primary function of check-in is to confirm the passenger's intention to fly, not all airlines are willing to eliminate check-in altogether. "We need some indication from the passenger that they are going to fly," says Lufthansa director of global passenger processes Volker Scheible. He notes the importance of check-in to full-service airlines because of their fully-flexible ticket options and legacy structure that is prone to other last-minute fleet assignment changes. "It's not so much about keeping the check-in process, but simplifying it for our customers. We have started to look at where we could add value by differentiating check-in for some customer segments, and that could include a boarding card push."

Similarly, Qantas general manager of direct sales, John Lonergan says automating check-in at the time of booking is too "complex" for the airline's legacy model, if changes or cancellations are made afterwards. The airline recently rolled out an innovative next-generation solution at Perth and Sydney airports for domestic travel. Frequent flyers are automatically checked in at the kiosk when swiping a new RFID-enabled loyalty card, which doubles as a boarding pass. At the bag drop, luggage is similarly checked in by scanning the same loyalty card. Passengers can self-tag a bag with their own permanent chip-enabled bag tag.

Qantas expects to fully roll out the solution at all Australian city airports for domestic travel next year. "We just want options," Lonergan adds, but admits the carrier does not immediately see a way to introduce the technology on international flights, due in part to the need to connect with partner carriers.

Despite these challenges, there is still more transparency in the check-in process, where it makes sense, operationally. Continental passengers are automatically checked in on the return segment, with boarding passes e-mailed, faxed or sent to the passenger's mobile phone 24h before departure. Jared Miller, Continental's managing director of self service and emerging technology, says: "We don't believe that check-in is an essential part of the customer experience, but obtaining a boarding pass is. We are exploring adopting automatic check-in on outbound segments," he adds.

In Europe, Air France has successfully introduced automatic check-in, but only for direct economy flights within Europe or between Europe and Africa booked through the airline's website. Customers receive a boarding pass and seat allocation 30h before departure. Automatic check-in is cancelled if passengers change their reservation after booking. Air France vice-president of commercial information systems, Nathalie Simmenauer, says: "I don't think check-in will exist at the airport [in future] but I don't know when. With technology and innovation, it will be a step that disappears."

Budget carriers that do not allocate seating have been able to relax the process. In some cases they have introduced advance passenger check-in from a week up to 60 days before departure. Lluis Pons, Vueling marketing director, argues: "Check-in is unnecessary for point-to-point travel bought via the internet." Vueling automatically checks in passengers and sends customers a boarding pass at the point of sale.

Regulatory Hurdles

Air New Zealand's Todd recognises there is a lot of work to do to simplify check-in on international sectors, where its passengers must still manually check in. "The [slow] pace of change in the industry of automating border processes, standardising data collection and integration into airline systems is a major constraint to progress. We support a collaborative approach in resolving this challenge and IATA's role in trying to achieve standards in this area," he adds.

At the same time, government requirements for advance passenger data and documentation checks are increasing in scope. IATA says: "We are looking at data harmonisation to assist airlines, but it's a long way off yet."

Passport and visa verification checks for all departing passengers in Asia make it impractical to eliminate the check-in step for international flights in the region, argues AirAsia X chief executive Azran Osman-Rani, "unless airports are willing to invest in biometric scanners". But even then, he admits, technology cannot fully solve the issue, in cases where additional manual document checks are required at the airport.

AirAsia X continues to invest in self-service technologies and is ready to launch a full mobile check-in solution, with a target of boosting self-check passenger usage from 15% today to 50% by the end of 2011, Osman-Rani says.

As web check-in has matured, mobile check-in looks set to be the next big push for airlines, boosted by the prevalence of smart phones. IATA says mobile devices have been the fastest growing self-service channel this year and the Airline IT Trends survey shows 12% of passengers will use mobile phones to check in by 2013, by which time 12.4% of boarding passes will be sent directly to passenger devices, compared with 2.4% today.

British Airways manager of ba.com and mobile channels Andrew Newman, says: "We always think of mobile check-in as the next big thing. We've been thinking that for 10 years." BA's smartphone users who are also Executive Club members can check in via their mobile device and download a boarding pass 24h before departure, on select flights.

Regardless of whether check-in is performed by the airline or manually by the passenger, the process will continue to evolve and is likely to take a different shape in future.

Larry Kretz, SITA senior product manager of passenger solutions, believes RFID or location-based near-field communications technology represents the next step for airlines, to track each passenger's arrival at the airport, thereby "checking them in".

Read more on the technology trends behind the airport experience shift