Airport technology – does it leave you in a tailspin?

Aerobatic plane doing a tailspin. Airport technology can leave you feeling like this!

Do you glaze over when you arrive at the airport only to be faced by a bank of self-service machines?

Or do you confidently stride up to them and press, type, insert and go, like a seasoned airport technology savvy traveller?

Airport technology is on the increase, it seems. Travel is becoming increasingly hi-tech at the world’s major airports. Biometric self-service entry clearance gates at many airports allow us to pass through these formalities efficiently. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing. Anything that cuts down the long queues at passport control gets a thumbs-up from me.

Many of us are now used to checking in online before we fly, so that all we have to do at the airport is take our luggage to the bag-drop area. Online check-in has many advantages, especially when you can choose your seats at leisure.

Like many public-facing businesses, airlines are saving time and manpower by moving increasingly in the direction of self-service, so that even bag-drop is now handled by machines at many airports. Every time a person-to-person service is replaced by a machine, there is a new process to learn – and different airports have different machines, so it can be a little challenging at times. It’s enough to turn you into a warrior.

Schoolchildren from Porirua New Zealand performing a Maori powhiri - a welcome ceremony - in traditional dress. They look rather warlike so maybe they don't like the airport technology!
School pupils from Porirua show their feelings about check-in machines

I remember determinedly wrestling for ages with a new check-in machine at Heathrow airport in London a while ago, only to be told by a helpful airport staff member that because I was a business passenger, I shouldn’t have used the machine at all – I should have gone to the business class check-in desk! Was there any sign to tell me that machines were only for economy passengers’ use? No.

Bamboozled at bag-drop

Airport technology is just as bamboozling in New Zealand. Our most recent departure visit to our local airport found us faced by a long row of unfamiliar machines. We only needed to bag-drop, but it was not immediately clear to us what these machines were for. Were they for check-in, bag-drop or all of these? We had no idea, until a helpful human from Air New Zealand came to the rescue.

Baggage labels successfully attached, we approached the conveyer belt and placed the first of our bags – my husband’s – to be weighed. The machine thanked us and asked us to scan the barcode on the baggage label. Oops – we couldn’t reach it with the scanner. We had to fiddle with the bag to turn it around, much to the machine’s annoyance, but eventually we managed to reach the label’s barcode with the scanner. Do you have any more bags, asked the machine? Well, we had mine, so we said yes. Place it on the scale please, said the machine. We obeyed.

Airport technology at Auckland domestic terminal - the dreaded bag drop machines!

Then we realised that the machine thought it was my husband’s bag and that he therefore had two bags, so a second label churned out with his name on it. Oh no, we didn’t mean that! We tried to reverse the process, but couldn’t. I suppose we could have left it as it was, except that he’d just stated on the security questionnaire that he’d done all his own packing, which wasn’t true of the second bag because it was mine and I’d packed it. So he had effectively lied and broken the law. What if he were found out? We couldn’t cope with the stress of that thought, so helpful human required once again.

Computer says “no”

On the return journey, we thought we had the airport technology all sussed. We strode confidently up to the machines at Auckland airport, all ready to go through our bag-drop routine. Unfortunately, the first machine we tried told us that it had run out of baggage labels. So we moved to the next one. All seemed to be going well. My husband’s baggage label printed out, but then the machine told us that it had run out of labels. So my own bags could not be labelled. Groan.

We went to the next machine, which told me that it could not print me a label because I had already been served. Aaargh! Off once again to find a helpful human. Air New Zealand, if you’re reading, please ensure that your machines at Auckland are regularly re-filled with baggage labels.

All in all, we found the experience pretty frustrating. We wondered whether these machines had ever been user-tested on ordinary people before they were launched. I suppose it takes time to learn new things, and to remember that machines are dumb – they can’t think laterally and intelligently like helpful humans. Well, maybe not yet anyway. Perhaps artificial intelligence and augmented reality will change all that in the future.

Air New Zealand Dreamliner aircraft newly landed at Wellington Airport
Might end up driving instead…

Meanwhile, I think travellers deserve better. We need more explanations and more help with these machines. A very basic starting point would be to state what they actually do, and what they are for. “Hello, can I help you today with check-in, bag drop or both?” would be a good start. “How many bags do you have? Let me check that I have enough baggage labels to serve you before you start” would be a great second improvement. “Do you need assistance? Let me call a human for you” would be a welcome third.

Travel has its share of frustrations and things that don’t quite work out the way they should. Feel free to share your own examples in the comments – I’d love to hear them! If you enjoyed this post, you might like my post about hotel technology in Brussels and some of my funny moments when encountering New Zealand English.

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  1. This happened to us as well in Perth. We had checked in online and I printed the boarding passes so all we had to do was go to the bag drop. We arrived and couldn’t see the bag drop. Then realised it was self-service. We had to get a friendly member of staff to help us as we messed it all up too.

  2. I feel your considerable pain! It’s a small thing but I won’t use the increasing number of self-service checkouts in supermarkets. Quite apart from them doing someone out of a job, they always make me feel like someone’s granny being taken out for the day. Humans are definitely the way forward. As for flying, not many options from NZ but I’m using the train wherever I can. It’s more expensive but there’s a lot more room, no restrictions on liquids and, crucially, no bag drop.

    1. Ha ha, I actually do use self-checkouts in the supermarket as there are always long queues at the personned ones. Train is my favourite method of transport and in the UK it would always be my preferred choice. Unfortunately NZ is ferrovially challenged, with a grand total of 3 non-commuter lines across the whole country. It would take nearly 10 hours to get from Wellington to Auckland, compared with 55 minutes by air. Nice trip though, if you have the time.

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