The evils of self check-in kiosks

Self check-in kiosks in airports are normally considered a time-saver. Unfortunately for this blogger, they are anything but.

I've probably flown more in my life than the average American, and that's not simply because I have this odd compulsion to live in foreign countries. Both sides of my family worked in the airline industry. One grandfather was a pilot before he moved into upper management at United, which from my standpoint, meant I got to ride in the flight simulators when we went to visit him. I tried to land the plane safely. My brother tried to crash the plane (and succeeded). My other grandfather worked as a mechanic at United, which might have something to do with the fact that his closet was filled with nothing but light blue shirts and dark blue pants. In fact, I can't remember him wearing anything else.

So, we flew a lot. Back then, flying was fun. My parents were convinced that we had to dress up when flying, which might explain why early photos of me emerging from a plane show me wearing a pin-striped suit (which if I remember correctly, I picked out, because, apparently, my fashion influence was Al Capone). Security? What security? Random strangers could stand around at the gate if they wanted, and my mother had a habit of arriving at the airport half an hour before the plane departed, which didn't cause problems because pilots were like Irish bus drivers who left whenever they felt like it.

Those times are gone, buried by withering airline competition that has given us lower prices in exchange for surly airline employees as well as terrorist attacks that have made meeting family at the gate something you only see in movies. I arrived at LAX (Los Angeles' main airport) an hour and twenty minutes before my flight was to depart on Sunday (I was making a trip to Mountain View, site of the other big Microsoft office), and I actually missed my flight because of all the delays associated with modern airplane travel.

That didn't have to be the case. The fact that I missed my flight had nothing to do with tight security (which was tight for me, as I was "selected" for special screening), and everything to do with the growing popularity of the self check-in kiosk.

Now, that's a strange thing for an IT guy to say. Self check-in supposedly exemplifies the efficiency gains to be derived from software. In theory, people can walk up to an electronic kiosk, swipe their credit card (for identification), and print off their ticket much faster than if they had to speak to a human being.

Unfortunately, the real world constraints of modern flying get in the way of that idealized conception. Here's an outline of the reasons.

1. The baggage check-in problem: If you have nothing but carry-on baggage, electronic kiosks might be okay. Unfortunately, I hate lugging around huge amounts of carry-on baggage, particularly now that the security checkpoint has become a form of ritual humiliation. Believe me, if doing so wouldn't get me arrested, I would travel butt naked, as that would make passing through security a breeze (in more ways than one).

Checking baggage, however, requires human assistance. They won't let you slap on your own tags and stick the bag on the conveyor belt. An airline employee must come by, check your ID, and put the tag on the bag themselves before sending you over to the X-Ray machine to have your belongings irradiated. This slows things down, though it can be argued that at least the interaction with a human being has been minimized so as to speed things up in the aggregate. Unfortunately, item 2 effectively erases those gains.

2. Airline cost savings: One of the reasons airlines like self-check in kiosks is that it enables staff reductions at check-in desks. In today's cost-conscious airline industry, that matters, and I can hardly blame airlines for wanting to do that.

Unfortunately, most airlines have been a bit overly aggressive when it comes to reducing staff for check-ins. I've seen 20 check-in kiosks that had perhaps two human beings to handle all the human interaction requirements. That's not nearly enough, and that was the main reason I missed my flight this past Sunday.

3. Department of Homeland Security: There is a special club in the United States composed of people with something unique about them. Their names are on a list distributed by the Department of Homeland Security, a status which requires that their details be checked before they board a plane. These people can't really use self check-in kiosks, because they ALWAYS need to have a human being verify their details.

I'm in that special club. Honest, it's not anything I've done. It's because someone named "John Carroll" did something naughty, and therefore "John Carroll" is on the list.

"John Carroll" just so happens to be an incredibly common Irish name. When I lived in Limerick, Ireland, there was half a page of people with the name "John Carroll" in the phone book (and several pages of people with the Carroll last name). There's a famous Irish hurling star named John Carroll. (For those not familiar with Irish hurling, it's like a cross between baseball, ice hockey, rugby, soccer and spoon racing that is extremely dangerous --imagine a group of people clustered together and swinging axe-shaped wooden bats near each other-- but is probably the most exciting sporting event I've ever seen.) Consequently, that wasn't the case when I was in Switzerland, where as I discovered, there were only two John Carrolls in the entire country. That probably explains why I got weird phone calls after particularly controversial articles on ZDNet.

I've had some amusing moments, such as the time an obviously new check-in clerk glanced at me in wide-eyed amazement as if my chest was going to open up and bite them in a scene from John Carpenter's "The Thing" (which, after Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining," is probably one of the best horror films ever made).  When you are running late to catch a flight, though, it's a real nuisance for a check-in clerk to get put in a wait queue when calling that "special number" to verify your details.

Anyway, I've never been able to use an electronic check-in kiosk without human assistance, because they have to call in my details. That, more than any of the other reasons, makes self check-in kiosks the bane of my existence.