The vanishing airport interior – Dubai Airport CEO aiming to get rid of check-in desks; the thin end of the wedge?

Dubai Airports’ CEO Paul Griffiths recently confirmed the company is aiming to phase out physical check-in desks at Dubai International Airport and Dubai World Central in favour of home check-in options, presumably using computers or smart phone apps. Mr Griffiths said: “We just need to find a way of dealing with baggage and I think technology is moving towards that area too”. Dubai International holds the title of the world’s busiest international airport and annual passenger traffic in 2018 was 89.1 million.

There is of course no shortage at many airports now of the facility to check-in at multi-airline electronic points using barcodes on smart phones or physical paper boarding cards, together with passports, rather than at desks if the passenger has no baggage and/or to do the same where there are self-service bag drop machines. But going beyond that, to the point where there is no other option is a different matter altogether.

Mr Griffiths is clear. He said: “What we want is to eliminate them altogether. Soon, I don’t think you’ll need to check-in using any physical token of booking. Most of it will be done at the time of booking in the office or home.”

Presumably space that becomes available by way of the elimination of check-in desks will be used for the “immersive experiences” that the airport wants to introduce as part of its current rebranding exercise. Anything from new ‘dining experiences’ to Dubai-themed areas to trampolines and table tennis tables for kids.

Emirates Airline introduced ‘Home Check-in’ in 2018, a service which allows customers to check-in for their flights from anywhere in Dubai. It is a paid-for service available for customers across all classes travelling on Emirates flights. It enables passengers to complete the security check and check-in from their home, hotel or office and have their luggage transported to the airport prior to their flight.

An Emirates check-in agent will travel to the preferred location to weigh and tag the bags as well as check-in the customers and issue boarding passes. Customers can then make their own way to the airport and head directly to immigration, bypassing the check-in desks at the airport.

Emirates and Dubai Airports are big on innovation. In 2018, Dubai International managed to reduce waiting times by 28%, mainly by introducing smart gates and an advanced operations centre. But even if it is paid-for, a personal valet-cum-chauffeur personally supervising an individual’s check-in at home seems to be a highly labour intensive option, just as much as that of delivering lost baggage to a passenger. Mr Griffiths refers to it as “a maturity in the aviation market”.

But there are potential issues here. With the disappearance of check-in desks, which is the next natural progression, goes the disappearance of check-in agents. Technology exists primarily to reduce human labour with a fixed sunk development cost after which the profits roll in. But there are many reasons why a passenger might want to deal with an agent in situ at the airport, especially changes of circumstance that have occurred, security questions arising and other matters that require urgent human interface.

The alternative is to have roving customer service staff dealing with issues that have arisen since both passenger and baggage were checked-in, possibly hours previously. Mr Griffiths said during his CAPA Middle East & Africa Aviation Summit keynote address earlier this month (embedded below) that alongside technological innovations, passengers still require some human interface during the airport travel experience.

Neither should it be assumed, as it often is, that everyone has a smart phone or similar device (and the natural progression here is that paper boarding cards will one day be phased out in favour of such devices). Currently 36% of the World’s total population has one (and statistics show UAE unsurprisingly at the top, with 82%, some way ahead of Sweden) and that includes small children. But that business is already suffering from the law of diminishing returns and the growth rate for new uptake is slackening, along with that for new models offering features barely better than their predecessors at considerable extra cost.

Allowing for the fact that social media contagion may spread to the physical catalyst for social media itself, the smart phone, it may well always be the case that fewer people on average globally own a phone than those that do. Or trade wars may push up their price beyond a threshold of affordability. ‘Back-up’ systems, at the very least, will always be required by airports.

Which brings the argument to the final point, which is anchored on Dubai Airports’ desire to invest in processes and technology generally, as it lacks space for much more infrastructure. Such technology usually includes security and that really is the thicker end of the wedge. It appears that the introduction of biometric technology is at the top of most airports’ wish list at present but it is that technology which, in its formative state, needs back-up systems more than most.