System Failure

Fatal Error

Diminishing The Impact Of An Airport Technology Malfunction

Technology is necessary to help effectively move passengers smoothly and efficiently through airports. Nevertheless, what happens when an airline‘s check-in system goes down at the airport? Are airlines prepared to effectively process passengers when technology is disrupted?

On a recent business trip, I experienced a situation where the airline’s check-in system malfunctioned and passengers could not be processed. As frustration grew within the crowd standing in the airport lobby, I watched the agents and saw a look of fear on their faces. The question at hand was, “When will the check-in system be back online?”

I stood in line with a Web check-in boarding pass and a printed copy of my itinerary and assumed I was ready to board. Even passengers who arrived with the necessary paperwork and only carry-on luggage discovered they were not able to check in and proceed through immigration and security.

Strategic Back-up Plan

Technology outages, such as when an airline‘s check-in system malfunctions, can result in complete chaos. Passengers can be standing in long lines waiting for a resolution. Panic can set in for both passengers and airline employees. However, a strategic back-up plan can eliminate much of the impact to customers, employees and the airline‘s schedule.

After waiting an hour and 20 minutes, a group of airline supervisors appeared with printed passenger name lists for each flight. After a 10-minute briefing with the agents at the counter, the check-in process began. Passengers were placed in queues based on flight departure times. Most flights experienced lengthy delays, and in a hub-and-spoke operation, such delays ripple through the remainder of the day’s operation.

As a former airline employee, I spent several years working behind an airport check-in counter, handwriting boarding passes and bag tags. So the solution was blatantly obvious to me: the airline should process passengers manually. Then I realized many years had passed since I had worked behind the counter.

Proper Training

Despite a passenger check-in system malfunction, getting customers through security and to their gates in a timely manner is quite possible when an airline’s check-in and gate agents have been properly trained to effectively manage an adverse situation.

Today, agents are not trained to handwrite bag tags and boarding passes. Therefore, even though the agents were given passenger name lists and briefed on how to proceed, I could still see the panic on their faces as they manually processed passengers through to security.

As I stood with the crowd in the lobby, supervisors continued to assure us we would not miss our flights because they were processing passengers in order of departure times. Finally, a sense of calm came over us. Still, I wondered what the airline could have done to adequately prepare for this type of disruption.

To prepare for similar situations in a way that does not disrupt the entire operation, airlines should have a business plan that enables them to shift from automated to manual mode quickly and effectively. The process should include:

  • Training airline agents how to handwrite bag tags and boarding passes, as well as verify the information from the passenger lists to ensure it agrees with the passengers’ itineraries.
  • Coordinating with the local immigration offices and the security divisions to determine which manually generated documentation is acceptable for passengers to continue through the screening process.
  • Designing a mutually agreeable validation stamp agents would access when such a situation arises. The validation stamp communicates to immigration and security that all necessary checks and passenger information have been verified and allows the passenger flow to continue with minimal disruption to the operation.

Lag Time

An enormous amount of time can be wasted if an airline does not have an alternate plan during a system outage. If not handled correctly, passengers can experience severe delays and have a long-lasting, negative perception of the airline.

In addition, an emergency communications strategy is necessary to ensure airline employees and passengers are routinely updated about the situation and the actions the airline is taking to resolve the issue.

In my situation, airline supervisors continued to make announcements advising that the check-in system was down, and no information was available about when it would be back online. However, after hearing this announcement three times, I became frustrated. We knew the system was down, but what we really wanted to know was how the airline planned to manage this problem, so we could board our planes and get to our destinations.

Had a process been in place, the supervisors could have announced that they were switching to a manual mode and arranging passengers by destination in designated queues, which would require approximately 10 to 20 minutes to prepare. This type of proactive communication would have informed customers that an alternative process was already in place and check-in would resume in a few minutes.

Customer Satisfaction

Irregular events, such as power outages, can have a devastating impact on an airline and leave its customers unhappy and, sometimes, outraged. Yet, if handled the right way, the airline can end up being the hero, boosting customer satisfaction to a new level.

These actions allow the airline to communicate to customers that the technology issue has been identified and, while it is not expected to be fixed in the immediate future, a plan is in place for such an event.

Another serious issue was the operational delay resulting from the 90 minutes it took for airline personnel to determine how to proceed. Had a plan been in place, the delay might have been reduced to the mere 10 to 20 minutes required to activate the alternate plan. The first few flights may have experienced a 20-minute delay, but the remainder of flights could have departed as scheduled.

A hub operation relies on aircraft to depart and return on time to maintain the structure and integrity of an airline’s operation. An alternate plan, even a simple one, can avoid disruptions, maintain customer satisfaction and, ultimately, save operational costs.

Ripple Effect

A business plan whereby an airline can quickly shift from automated to manual mode can prevent serious delays that will ultimately ripple through the remainder of the day’s operations.

Therefore, airlines should consider which processes are currently in place and design and implement a back-up process to keep the operation on track in the event of a system outage. The manual process presents one solution. However, smartphones and tablets could also be used, providing a more-automated solution. Network-enabled tablets would allow agents to continue the check-in process if local Internet connectivity was an issue. The tablets could then print boarding passes to a mobile printer carried by the agents as well. Use of the tablet as a normal check-in process provides mobility for the agents as well as a technology back up in the event of a local network failure.

Clearly, airlines should have a business plan in place to operate effectively and efficiently when conditions are less than ideal. Their ability to execute proactive decisions and communicate alternate plans to customers enables them to recover from the events with minimal impact to operations and associated costs while ensuring a positive experience for customers.

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