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Passengers aren't lining up yet for Web check-in

October 19, 2003|James Gilden | Special to The Times

You can stand in line for the airport check-in counter if you really want to, or you can check in on the Web up to 24 hours or more in advance on nearly every major airline, dodging yet another travel hassle.

Despite the time and trouble Web check-in saves, it seems to be slow catching on, even though all of the major airlines offer it (except Southwest, which plans to introduce it later this year).

Among the first to offer Web check-in was Delta, which began using it in spring 2001. More than 1 million passengers used the Web for check-in on Delta the first eight months of this year, just a fraction of the more than 70 million passengers who flew the airline through August.

Thomas Gay of Fort Worth, a million-mile flier on American Airlines, regularly shops the Internet for fares and travel bargains, and considers himself a sophisticated and Web-savvy traveler. Still, he was intimidated by the idea of printing a boarding pass from his home computer.

"I had been thinking about doing it for a long time," he says. "I'm so conditioned to having [a boarding pass] that prints out of their system."

His concerns mirror those of other air travelers.

"Airlines do face a big challenge with Web check-in," says Henry Harteveldt, principal analyst at Forrester Research in San Francisco. "They really need to educate travelers not only that the service exists but that there are benefits to its use. If they don't, they risk that consumers may, somehow, perceive that Web check-in is either less effective, less valid or riskier than airport check-in."

The widespread availability of Web check-in was spurred partly by changing Transportation Security Administration rules that went into effect earlier this year. Passengers are required to have a boarding pass to get through security checkpoints. Some passengers, especially those who are not checking their bags, find it simpler to use the Web to have their boarding pass in hand.

So Gay gave it a shot. Using his home computer, he went to the American Airlines Web site, clicked "flight check-in," entered his frequent-flier number and password, and printed his pass.

He figures he saved as much as 40 minutes round trip. "At the airport I got out of the car and went directly to screening," he says. "The screener looked at it and my ID and sent me right through."

Web check-in may be growing in popularity, but it's dwarfed by the popularity of another recent technology innovation: self-service kiosks.

Kiosk check-in is now offered by most major domestic airlines, and its usage far exceeds that of Web check-in. Delta reports 7.4 million passengers used the kiosks in 2002, and 14.2 million passengers have used them so far in 2003, nearly 13 times the number of fliers who used Web check-in.

Experts say the airlines could be doing more to get people to use Web check-in, such as rewarding Web check-in with opportunities to earn frequent-flier miles.

"One major flub has been that airlines offer only a limited number of opportunities to earn bonus miles with Web check-in," Harteveldt says.

Gay was attracted to Web check-in by an offer of 500 bonus frequent-flier miles. Now he's a convert.

"I really like it," he says, after using it for his last three trips.

"It's one less stop you have to worry about if you got held up in traffic. It's an extra cushion at check-in."

Here are some tips on using the Internet to get a boarding pass. (The steps vary by airline, so check the carrier's Web site.)

* Finding Web check-in: Go to your airline's home page; the check-in is usually very evident. You'll need an electronic ticket, and some airlines require you to be a member of their frequent-flier programs.

* Printing the boarding pass: This requires only an inkjet or laser printer and standard 8 1/2-by-11 white paper.

* Checking bags: You can check luggage at curbside or at the kiosk baggage check counter.

* Getting a seat assignment: Many airlines allow you to check and change your seat assignment. If your airline's site does not support seat assignment, you will have to speak to an agent.

* Getting an upgrade: Many of the airlines' systems support electronic upgrades. If you want to upgrade using frequent-flier miles or need to pay for it, you will probably have to speak with an agent.

* Replacing a lost boarding pass: You'll have to see an agent at the airport to get a duplicate.

* Navigating changes in your schedule: If you can't make your flight or have changes, call the airline. All the usual fees for changes apply, though there are no penalties for having used Web check-in.

* Flying internationally: Only Northwest allows Web check-in for select international destinations. American, Continental, Delta, United and US Airways do not.

James Gilden writes the Internet Traveler twice monthly. He can be contacted through his Web site,

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