Kafka at the Airport: Why Online Check-in is a Myth

"Ha," you think, as you click your way through an online check-in form. "I will not need to wait in those long lines, since I'll already have my boarding card. That's especially cool since there's only one hour between my arrival and my transfer to the next point in my trip."

And so, ignorant of the great delusion that is about to reveal itself to you, you slip the freshly printed boarding cards into your passport. Next day, everything starts promising. Your first flight bears you no ill will and before you know it you're at the next airport, expecting to transfer smoothly to the next flight.

And then it happens. You show your 'boarding card' which, yes, is quickly to receive small quotation marks around itself, and are brusquely told to complete the check-in process. What check-in process?! You've already checked in! The Kafkasque world that is the online check-in lie gradually exposes itself, as you find yourself in an ever increasing frenzy, frantically trying to make sense of the world as you know it, while the plane that should be carrying you off to your final destination threatens to take off without you.

All this is because online check-in is a farce, for (at least) the following three reasons:

  • Security. The powers that be can't check whether you're a suspect person (whatever that term means to you) if you're checking in online. Therefore, as I discovered when flying from San Francisco to Frankfurt recently, I needed to check-in in person so that whatever checks they do could be done. The funny thing was that they'd set up a special line for people who had already checked-in online, but since so many people had done exactly that... the 'online check-in check-in line' was longer than the line for those who hadn't checked-in online at all.

  • Carry-on luggage variations. On some types of planes, i.e., large ones, carry-on luggage limits are determined by the size of the luggage. I.e., those small wheeled suitcases that everyone seems to have nowadays (in order to keep your belongings as close to you as possible and circumventing long waits at the luggage conveyor belt and the ever looming possibility of lost luggage) are acceptable on large planes. However, on small planes they want you to check those in, i.e., not carry them on to the plane, unless they weigh less than 5kg (and, seriously, is there one of those little suitcases that isn't crammed with everything you could possibly cram into it, all of which is always going to be over 5kg)? That's what happened on my flight today in Brazil from Sao Paolo to Porto Alegre.

  • Ignorance. Not all employees at airports seem to be aware that there is such a thing as online check-in.

So, because of the above reasons (and probably others) the online check-in procedure is a complete farce. At its very best, the procedure is useful in reserving your seat. But not for checking in! Although, sometimes it DOES work as check-in process, which is even WORSE because you never know until the nice looking lady casts her cold eyes of death over you, as you stand their quivering and pleading to be let through because after all you have every right... since you CHECKED-IN ALREADY.


Don't know about international flights, but I've never had any problems on flights within the EU.

Posted by Luís Miranda on June 23, 2009 at 02:14 AM PDT #

Right. Drop by again when you travel from the US to Europe or from Europe to South America. Or any other combination of these.

Posted by Geertjan Wielenga on June 23, 2009 at 02:18 AM PDT #

When e-tickets were brand new, I was on a 2-leg flight from Las Vegas to Boston. None of the airline employees knew what to do with me. On both flights, they boarded me last, despite my having a valid ticket. They put me between the folks with the "normal" tickets and the standbys. On one leg, the only seat left was next to the engine. On the other, it was in first class :)

Posted by Rich Unger on June 23, 2009 at 03:13 AM PDT #

Being a flight from San Francisco to Frankfurt may explain it. I presume you don't have a US passport and all the above happened to you in a US airport. At least be glad they didn't pull you in a separate line at the security check and have you remove shoes, belt and whatever else they want... US airports staff are far from being nice to travelers.

Posted by Lucian Pintilie on June 23, 2009 at 05:41 PM PDT #

grappig! 'cold eyes of death' :-)

Posted by Hermine Deurloo on June 24, 2009 at 08:43 AM PDT #

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Geertjan Wielenga (@geertjanw) is a Principal Product Manager in the Oracle Developer Tools group living & working in Amsterdam. He is a Java technology enthusiast, evangelist, trainer, speaker, and writer. He blogs here daily.

The focus of this blog is mostly on NetBeans (a development tool primarily for Java programmers), with an occasional reference to NetBeans, and sometimes diverging to topics relating to NetBeans. And then there are days when NetBeans is mentioned, just for a change.


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