Check-in kiosks have done a pretty good job of reducing interactions between passengers and airline employees, but in this COVID-19 era they present a different challenge. Multiple users touching the same screen over and over again becomes a potential transmission vector and cleaning the machines between each use is a logistics mess. United Airlines announced last week plans for a touchless kiosk design.
Touchless kiosks still need input
The company describes the program as “touchless kiosks for printing bag tags and checking bags, eliminating the need to touch the screen.” Typically that process requires answering a few questions, such as how many bags, how large they are and if they contain hazardous materials. And, in many cases, payment for the bags is also required. Getting through all of that without touching the kiosk screen would normally be a challenge. But integrating the United mobile app with the kiosks can make the process significantly smoother.
A United representative confirms passengers will use the app and then scan it at the kiosks for touchless printing purposes. From that description the process seems pretty straightforward to work out, though this part is not confirmed by United:
- The check-in flow on the app will handle all the questions about how many bags as well as the payment process
It will also add a new, single-use barcode option in eligible reservations Rather than a boarding pass, however, this barcode will include the necessary traveler/itinerary information and a special data flag telling the kiosk there’s only one action required
- Passenger scans the special bag tag barcode at the kiosk when they arrive at the airport
- The kiosk software will be updated to recognize the additional barcode type and, when scanned, move directly to the “print bag tag” phase of its script
The special barcode is marked as used so the app doesn’t allow more bag tags to be printed
Possibly some minor variations in how that plays out, but I expect the gist of it is pretty close to accurate.
UPDATE: United now confirms that the app part won’t change but the Kiosks will. A subset will be dedicated to only print bag tags based on scanning the boarding pass barcode.
Why a new/extra barcode? The kiosks already have various processes tied to different inputs, including the scan of a boarding pass. Changing those, rather than adding a new one, seems unlikely to me. It would further complicate the process and change passenger habits that don’t otherwise need to be altered. It also ensures that the systems don’t spit out tags repeatedly by accident if a passenger scans again for some reason.
Getting a change like this rolled out so quickly is impressive for such a large company. That the functionality could also be useful even after the pandemic concerns subside is an added bonus for United and its passengers. Not quite the same as some European airlines that allow bag tags to be printed at home, but definitely moving more towards the self-service end of the spectrum.
Mix in self-boarding gates where the passenger scans their own boarding pass and the human interaction decreases even further. Though the new gates require significant capital investment, so don’t expect that program to expand anytime soon.