Friday, June 27, 2008

Optimally Inefficient Check-In

I have a friend who doesn't want me to get a job with Air Canada, because then, for solidarity's sake, he says he'd have to stop complaining about them. I don't work for Air Canada now, so I'm going to take a moment to complain.

This did not seem to be a one-time experience caused by some one-in-a-thousand malfunction: this was the normal everyday experience with checked bags at a major Canadian airport. It wasn't even a Friday or a Monday. What were they thinking when they set it up? What are they thinking when they watch the mayhem that develops?

The check-in area is arranged so that when I come in the door I am between the first class check-in counters and the ticket purchase counters. If I had no checked bags I could walk straight ahead between both and gone to the gate area, because I've already got my boarding pass online. If I were flying first class, I could have checked in right there and continued. But I am flying Tango, Air Canada's lowest fare tier, and I have a bag to check.

Around to my left is a row of about eight check-in kiosks. It's a good thing I've checked in online, because the area where the kiosks are is completely roped off, except for one gap at the front, through which a long queue has formed, wrapping all the way around the kiosks towards the ticket purchase counter. One of the check-in kiosks is in use. The rest are empty.

The online check-in page directed me to go straight to the "Air Canada Web bag drop-off counter." That's listed in bold on the boarding pass, so I search for that sign. I can't see it anywhere. I go up to where the queue passes through the gape in the stanchioned tape and read the sign there. It says something like Bag Check-In. There is an Air Canada employee there so I ask him where the "web bag drop-off" is, and he says this is it. I go to the back of the line. Pretty soon someone comes along and asks to be let through, "I don't have any bags to check! I just need to get to the check-in kiosk!" She clearly doesn't have any bags to check, and we're lining up for the bag drop, so people let her through. Then comes the next guy, "Let me through! I'm late for my flight!" We let him through, too, but less charitably. He should have though of that when he decided what time to leave the house. And then comes another woman.

"Let me through," she says, "I just have to drop off my bags."

"So does everyone else," we say.

"I already checked in," she protests.

"So did everyone else," the crowd choruses wearily.

Variations on this these are of course repeated with every new person. Air Canada couldn't do much better if they wanted to deliberately provoke fights in the queue. There is no one from the airline patrolling the line here. The guy over by the sign doesn't seem to be doing anything service-related. Maybe he's there to make sure the tape barrier doesn't fall down.

The line proceeds into the inexplicably roped off kiosk area and then to the bag tagging stations beyond the check-in kiosks. There are several lanes, so once inside the ropes, people split up into whichever lane they think will give them the best chance. Each line reaches back past the kiosks, so that the people actually trying to use the check-in kiosks have to run the gauntlet. There's no point in having checked in online, because the bag drop is such a huge bottleneck, checking in at the airport at least gives you something to do while waiting to drop your bag.

When you get to the bag tagging station they are nice to you, verify your ticket, and put a routing sticker on the bag. I'm not sure what is self-serve about that. They don't weigh the bag. Next, you have to go all the way to the left to join the queue to actually drop off your bag. This queue is perpendicular to the bag tag lanes, so everyone comes out of the bag tag lane and attempts to jump the queue, until they are told where the end of the line is. As the line inches forward, you pass the special baggage (skis, rifles, musical instruments, strollers) drop, such that people coming out of bag tag with special baggage have to cut through the bag drop queue. They can't easily go all the way around the end of it, because the regular bag drop queue kind of blocks the entrance to the special bag drop area.

Eventually I near the head of the bag drop queue. The area is clogged with abandoned baggage carts, because there is nowhere to put them, and no easy way to leave the area while pushing one. We now notice that people coming through the bag tag lanes on the far right have started a separate tail for the same queue, so there is pretty much no escape after dropping your bag.

Each passenger places his bag on the belt, and it is conveyed towards a scanner. Just before going into the scanning machine it hits a scale. A screen lights up and tells the weight of the bag in kilograms, in green if it is within limits, and in red if it is overweight. There are a lot of red alert bags. At this point the owner of the bag, who would have already been out of earshot if it weren't for the fact that the line is difficult to escape, gets to start his or her argument with the Air Canada employee supervising the belt, over why he thinks 37 kg is okay. The bag now needs to be hauled backwards through the line to the counter where customers are supposed to pay their excess baggage fees. But by this point customers are so hostile, and the actual logistics of getting the bag off the belt and the customer to the counter so daunting, that I'm pretty sure the bags were just getting HEAVY/LOURD stickers and continuing without the extra payment being made.

I overheard the guy with the HEAVY stickers saying that he was running out of stickers. I placed my bag on the belt and watched to see the weight. I knew it wasn't overweight, but I wanted to see. No weight displayed on the screen. I think their solution to running out of HEAVY tags was to disable the weight display function of the belt.

The best thing I can say for the system is that it gave me an insight into Canada's medical system: Canadians don't horribly object to standing in line, but we're outraged by anyone budging in front of us without a fair reason.

Comments overheard:

  • "Air Canada motto: we're not happy until you're not happy"
  • "Maybe they hired an inefficiency expert to design this."
  • "Perhaps it's a service, designed to make the security screening seem pleasant."
  • Ah the joys of air travel


    SighBorg said...

    Apparently there is an office called "Customer Solutions" at Air Canada. Of course they don't supply an email address that I could find, just one of those annoying, cramped little boxes where you have to type your "issue" ...

    majroj said...

    I'll bet the person planning this system was named Alexei, Boris, or Natasha.
    As for the inexplicable tape and the man standing there...I was going to work when I saw a deputy was clearing traffic cones from the intersectin I needed to drive through. Asked him what was wrong. He stated a deranged woman in her red Mustang had picked up a bunch of cones at a contruction site and had studiously barricaded four intersectons with them overnight.
    The guy was a torqued-off pasenger who snapped , fond or bought some cordon, then set it up to mess with y'all.

    CYOW + CYVR said...

    It doesn't help that AC very quietly cut their baggage limit from 32kg to 23kg some years back. This severely increases passenger discomfort without actually saving AC any money.

    Since AC doesn't weigh carry on bags, the normal reaction to hitting the weight limit is just to transfer weight from luggage into carry on. Add to this the dirty secret that most airlines don't use actual bag weights on the loadsheet and therefore weight harassment has no impact on fuel uptake or space available for airfreight and the final picture is of entirely artificial weight limits that accomplish nothing other than frustrating passengers at checkin.

    Ultimately, aircraft fuel burn is unchanged, passenger frustration and disgust is increased, and the sleezeballs in the boardroom get to pat themselves on the back for making traveling that much more unpleasant.

    dpierce said...

    How about an inefficient check-OUT? If you live in Atlanta, and are returning home via ATL from an int'l destination, you (naturally) hit passport control, spend 20 mins waiting on your luggage, and pass customs. Then, because the int'l section is just a concourse embedded within the airside security area, rather than a terminal of its own, you have to endure the stupidest airport design ever devised ...

    Merely to LEAVE the airport and go home after your 12 hour flight, you must RE-CHECK your luggage, stand in a miles-long security line AGAIN, and do the usual shoes and x-ray procedure, just to get back into the regular airside area. Now you may take the train to the terminal where you AGAIN wait at a baggage belt for your luggage.

    It sometimes take 90 mins to leave the airport after you exit the airplane, and NONE of that is due to lengthy passport or customs lines. This is supposed to be fixed by 2012 (I think), but it's been this way for many years.

    Sylvia said...

    But by this point customers are so hostile...

    There's been a few posts recently claiming an increase in in-flight issues with passengers - I'm convinced that if mid-flight muppetry is on the increase, it's because of the stress from trying to get through check-in and security.

    steve said...

    the most galling aspect of this cretinous "system", is that the smug desk-jockeys get paid a handsome amount,to purportedly run an "efficient" system.

    "piss-up" and "brewery" come to mind.

    come the revolution, we'll hang 'em from the lampposts!

    CYOW + CYVR said...

    Today's Globe and Mail provides yet another reason to hate AC: some twit of a gate agent sent airport security after a Globe reporter for discussing ongoing terrorism trials while she was waiting in the gate holding pen.

    This kind of behavior epitomizes what's wrong with carrier air travel. An ever larger percentage of airline staff are on ever larger power trips while emboldened by increasingly absurd 'security' and business restrictions against passengers who have no right of recourse.

    As Sylvia says, air rage is no accident. It's the perfectly predictable result of CATSA/TSA and the airlines squeezing passengers until they snap.

    Anonymous said...

    We get the airlines we deserve.

    People make their reservations on-line, shopping for the very cheapest flight we can find. When the airlines treat us like #&)! as they work ever harder to spend less money, you can find the person to blame in the mirror.

    I very much hate government regulation. But mandating minimum seat sizes (for safety) and standards for service is probably the only cure.

    We are seeing the result of cut-throat competition, when the sole measurement of performance is price, rather than performance.

    If it were possible to see the seat we would be sitting in, the food we would eat, and the passengers we would be sharing the flight with before we actually bought the ticket, then everything would be different. Imagine walking up the airline terminal where a salesman was offering seat 5C to LAX with a steak dinner for 160 bucks, or you could choose seat 19B with a turkey sandwich for 130 bucks, next to the woman with the crying baby.

    Don't get me started with first class fares that are so expensive you have to take out a second mortgage to pay for. I might pay 50% more for service that rivaled coach in 1970, but paying 10x more for first class is over-the-top.


    Soaring Student said...

    Sounds like you were going through Toronto. Even if you were not, it is the dumbest excuse for an over-expensive airport on the planet. On a recent trip I couldn't avoid routing through there, and so trekking from the domestic arrivals to the international departures you walk a honking long distance in one direction, go through a door where they stamp your boarding pass, and walk a double-distance back in the other direction. All along, there are people sitting or standing by doors to make sure you don't go through the wrong one without the right stamp.

    I shook my head at the third door, and stated "I heard a rumour that someone designed this terminal, but that can't be true." The girl sighed and gave me a complaint form - apparently she'd heard it before.

    My solution is to avoid Toronto Pearson (why do they name airports after dead politicians? I don't want to go to Pearson, I want to go to Toronto) whenever possible. Since Ottawa has direct flights to London/LHR, Frankfurt, Halifax, Montreal, Boston, Laguardia (another dead politician), Calgary, Chicago, Vancouver, Washington, Newark and more, I'm almost always successful.

    And the AC Web Bag Drop rarely has a lineup.

    As for Toronoto - Porter flies to the Island, so you don't need a $60 cab ride to get downtown.

    The best thing that could happen to the dorks that designed YYZ would be unemployment.

    Mike said...

    I've been flying a lot on QF domestic recently. The issue of carry-on baggage has got to such a farcical point that something has to break. Last Friday I was first pax aboard a B738. Stowed my single regulation roll-on bag. Then watched as people with 2 and 3 bags came on-board. By the time the plane was 60% full of pax the lockers were completely full, and then the fun began. People were walking from their front seats and stuffing bags into lockers near the back of the a/c. Finally pax were simply placing their roll-on bags between their knees. In the emergency exit rows baggage was going under the seats - it shouldn't have. Finally after 40 minutes the doors closed and we left - with me hoping that we didn't have to evacuate because we couldn't have done it. I can tell you that these a/c are not the Tardis - you can't just keep shoving hand carry luggage in and expect it to work. Do you think the company cares?

    You can just imagine the shambles when it came to disembarkation - people pushing from the front to get their bags....