/ Travel & Leisure

Self-service airports – plane sailing or infuriating?

Self-service airport check-ins

Gatwick’s new terminal extension has mostly scrapped check-in desks and now asks us to do it ourselves – whether printing boarding cards or even our own bag tags. Will a DIY approach to airline check-in take off?

Airline people don’t like to say it too loudly, but it’s quite common within the industry for passengers to be referred to as “self-loading cargo”.

The term picks up on human beings’ convenient ability to transport themselves on and off large metal tubes known as aircraft without the need for costly equipment to manoeuvre them into the hold. It’s always been a bit of an optimistic term, because passengers do of course require a lot of costly equipment like check-in desks, walkways and gate areas to get them to and from the aircraft.

But in some airline executives’ dreams, they probably see a world where passengers do everything for themselves, cutting out the need to have any airline ground staff at all.

And the amount of equipment needed is steadily reducing as we are asked to do more and more for ourselves. First it was booking tickets online, then self check-in, then printing your boarding cards.

Gatwick’s new DIY terminal extension

Now the realisation of the execs’ dreams has come a small step closer with the opening of an extension to Gatwick airport’s North Terminal.

The terminal is occupied solely by British Airways at the moment, but Emirates and Easyjet are expected to join before too long.

To my mind, the extension looks fantastic. Unlike most of the terminal, it has large windows, meaning it’s light and airy, which is in sharp contrast to the dark, gloomy atmosphere elsewhere. It feels uncrowded, almost like a miniature version of Heathrow’s Terminal 5 but without the swanky premium lounges and Gordon Ramsay restaurant.

It has also upped the ante in the drive to push passengers into doing everything for themselves. On arrival at the terminal, passengers will need to go to self-service kiosks, where they will be asked to check themselves in and print out their boarding cards. That in itself is not unusual, but they’ll also need to print out their luggage tags.

Passengers will then have to take these to one member of staff, who will be in charge of two – rather than one – luggage belts, and whose role will be to simply swipe the bag tags.

Customers who would prefer not to go down the DIY route won’t have much of a choice – there are only two stands where BA staff will be available to manually check-in economy passengers (premium passengers get a few more).

Too much self, not enough service

BA hopes that, ultimately, 90% of people will be using the self-service option, about double the proportion using it now.

The airline may well meet that target, simply because there’s only two manual check-in desks. But will being responsible for printing your boarding cards and bag tags make things run more smoothly, or just add to the stress of getting through the airport?

And will BA save money, or will it need to pay extra staff to help people operate self-service kiosks? Most of all, do we really want to live up (or down) to our role as self-loading cargo?


Is it just me or does it take almost as long to use a “fast bag drop” desk after booking-in-online as doing the whole thing at a “normal” desk.

Mikhail says:
19 October 2011

I love e-services, I have an ‘ultimate size’ cabin bag and e-boarding card (picture in my phone) I go directly from the train to the security checks, then travel-lounge and to the airplane. Can’t remember when I used a ‘human interface’ check-in last time.

Recently used BMI Baby at East Midlands who use the basic check in machines (but no baggage label printing) facility. The queue was still long for baggage check in because only one person was there (and had to weigh the cases and print the labels). If anyone had an overweight case then it all ground to a halt.

The big downside for us was that I had cabin baggage only but my partner had hold luggage. We had originally booked for me to check-in online and her to check in at the desk. The only problem with that is that we woudn’t get seats together as my online checkin would allocate me a seat (at random). I ended up having to pay extra to checkin at the airport so that we could sit together.

This isn’t an issue with someone like Ryanair where you don’t get allocated seating as the norm (you just run faster than everyone else).

Another hidden airline change!

Yes I just love the sophistication and glamour of air travel. Being up-to-the-minute with the latest check-in procedures is really important to me so I shall have to book a flight from Gatwick in order to experience the exceptionally smooth and truly trouble-free translation from one holding area to another. Of all the enjoyable hours I have spent relaxing in airports, sadly I have never been able to spend more than a very few minutes at the check-in desks but it will be a great relief to be released from this tiresome burden laced as it is with human contact which can so often descend into friendly banter. So long have I waited for the chance to affix my own luggage tags. The good news just keeps on coming.

OK, all passengers will now have to queue at these machines to acquire luggage labels. What then is the point in booking in on line, printing boarding pass at home ..??? It seems to be just as convenient to do all this at one time in the airport, or is there something they haven’t told us ??