Airports and new consumers – Checking in to an online world

British Airways will open its new home at Terminal 5 next March. David Bicknell looks at how T5 is set to revolutionise the passenger experience by embracing the benefits of the web

Checking in for a flight has previously been an experience to endure rather than enjoy. Fight your way to the airport. Join the increasingly long queue to check in. Choose your seat, have your passport checked, answer some ‘security’ questions, and get your boarding card. Then join another queue to go through security. And finally the walk to the gate; followed by more checks.

Booking and checking in online has made life easier, but having checked in online, you’re still fighting your way through a terminal that was designed and built in the era of the typewriter.

But with Terminal 5 opening at Heathrow on March 27 2008 to become the new home for British Airways, around 30 million passengers a year will see how airport terminal design has moved to accommodate a world of online booking and check-in – via PC, PDA and mobile phone – to get those passengers ‘ready to fly’.

After next March, far from living in an airport check-in zone, if BA’s process plans for T5 are successfully implemented, the passenger will scarcely make a backwards glance on their way through the terminal. general manager Carsten Willert says T5 has enabled BA to revolutionise the travel process to reflect the realities of the online industry.

“T5 is a major step in moving from an offline world with large check-in facilities, to an online one. We want to have the customer ready to fly by the time they arrive at the airport.

“Even now, in the traditional approach, there are uncertainties and a chance someone will get lost in the terminal, and we won’t know where they are. We want to prevent this.”

BA’s future check-in process will see passengers go online, input all their details including visa and passport, plus any Advanced Passenger Information System data for passengers flying to the US, and be ‘ready to fly’. They’ll also be told of any last-minute delays.

“If we have your mobile number from the online check-in process, we can reach you by text if there are disruptions or changes, and help you navigate any issues at the airport,” says Willert.

At the terminal, instead of a traditional check-in zone, there will be a forest of 96 self-service kiosks to which passengers will be signposted. Fast bag-drop stations will help to reduce queues.

“A passenger going online can let us know in advance how many bags they want to check in, or even pay in advance for excess baggage. And they’ll get a discount because they’ve paid upfront. The more data we have in advance, the more we can prepare ourselves as an airline,” says Willert.

Another element of BA’s T5 plan is the use of service desks to solve any passenger check-in problems. The desks have been designed as a ‘one-stop-shop’ to solve all problems, with passengers scarcely having to stop through the terminal.

Currently, 55% of BA’s passengers use kiosks to check in. But BA intends all T5 passengers to use check-in kiosks. Those passengers who now choose to check in at the counter and may be reluctant to use kiosks can ask for assistance or use a customer service desk.

Willert says Club World and First passengers especially can expect a smooth ride. “If you are a business traveller or premium flyer, have checked in online with only hand baggage, you may not have to wait at all throughout the whole airport terminal process, since fast-track security lanes will be made available to these customers”.

The streamlined check-in and baggage process means any ‘passport or visa’ checks are completed before passengers go to security. So perennial ‘late arrivals’ hoping for pulled strings to get them to the gate will find T5’s processes and procedures only stretch so far.

“The system is designed to only let passengers through who are ready to fly and give them more time and less hassle in the airport. If you arrive less than 45 minutes before departure, you will not be allowed through,” says Willert.

He says this will lead to an 8% improvement in overall punctuality.  “The rule applies to all passengers (even business travellers who are used to arriving late), but equally all will benefit from more punctual departures.”

The issue for BA now is making sure that by March 27 2008, all its processes – and back-up procedures – have been honed and that staff have been trained to meet all eventualities.

“This is one of the biggest changes to the way we do business at BA. We will be retraining up to 15,000 staff to be ready for T5. T1 and T4 are old-style terminals, so we’ve had to completely re-engineer the process for T5, including new roles and working practices for our staff, all of which we’ve agreed with the unions,” says Willert.

An intensive six-month period of proving trials will begin with BAA in September when more than 16,000 people will be recruited to act as passengers and test every aspect of the terminal including car parking, automated check-in and baggage, IT systems and security.

BAA, for its part, is keen to discount any suggestion that eliminating traditional check-in desks in favour of automated kiosks, will lead to more use of space to create retail and foodservice money-making opportunities.

“The T5 Public Enquiry put limits on the amount of space we could use for landside retail facilities. And our priority is to increase security lanes to process passengers,” says a BAA spokeswoman.

Henry Harteveldt, vice-president and principal analyst for travel research at analyst Forrester Research, says the trend for passengers to check themselves in will increase.

“Self-service check-in improves their capability. They can book their own seat or book a seat giving them more room. Or get an upgrade.

“The airline is cutting costs, because passengers are printing their own boarding cards. Look at the numbers: the average cost per passenger of using check-in staff is $3.02. By using automated kiosks in terminals, it’s just 14 cents,” he says.

“As kiosks evolve, even travelling to the US, which has been logistically complex, will get easier.

“There will always be issues with families, children, or a Mr Fussbucket who wants to talk to someone. But in future, self-service check-in will become so accepted that you’d ask yourself why people would want to check in the way we do now?”

Willert adds: “We’re doing things in an entrepreneurial way with T5. We’re trying to encourage the passenger to do as much as possible in advance. This will be a better customer experience all round.”

How BA is revolutionising the passenger experience

Terminal 5 will:

Be light, modern and spacious
Be more efficient operationally
Incorporate a state-of-the-art baggage system
Be designed for punctuality and ‘flow-through’, with smoother, easier airport experience
Have more space/less congestion

How will this be done?

Duplicated processes removed
A move to self-service
Innovative use of technology
Dealing with problems early, ie. not at the gate, meaning less wasted time for customers in the airport


Being encouraged and enabled to be as ready as possible for departure before they arrive at the airport
80% customer automated check-in
Being involved in ‘zero’ queues at check-in and bag-drop for checked in customers
Departure processes that are only done once
Differentiation for premium customers
Streamlined gate processes to support punctual departure
Proactive ‘disruption management’, with passengers being automatically notified of delays

T5 by numbers

  • 0 Traditional check-in desks
  • 96 Self-service kiosks (Wave 1)
  • 96 Fast bag drops (Wave 2)
  • 48 Customer service desks (Wave 3)
  • 15,000 BA staff

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