Nightmare at Airline Check-in Counter

standing-at-the-check-in-counterA few weeks ago I had to make a short trip to a neighbouring country. As usual I waited until the last minute to book my flights and accommodation. At first I went directly to the airline web sites to see if they had any cheap tickets… and when that failed, I used a few booking search engines to find cheap tickets to my destination. The cheapest airline by far was an airline that I had never heard of before… I quickly booked my tickets, selected my seats… but there was no online check-in – very frustrating because I only intended to take hand luggage for my weekend trip and didn’t want to have to stand in a queue to collect my boarding pass.

The airline turned out to be supper efficient, notwithstanding the fact that I had to stand in line to check-in instead of just doing so using the airline web site or mobile application. The airline had very strict policies about what could be taken in as hand luggage, and what could not – and I could tell from the plea’s of passengers ahead of me in the baggage check-in queue that the staff enforced the rules on bag weight and dimensions with great vigour.
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“Good,” I thought. “It’s time those passengers who bring their oversized bags in as hand luggage and then spend 10 minutes in the narrow isle trying to figure out why their outsized bag will not fit into the overhead compartment got thought a lesson.”

When it was my turn I gleefully announced that I did not have any luggage to check-in and I would only be taking my wee weekend bag as hand luggage. The lady in front of me retrieved my booking, looked at me and politely asked me to place my little bag on the scale. My bag weighed in at just over 10 Kg, and the lady announced that I would have to check it in.

“What! It is such a wee little bag, how can that be?” I protested.

It turns out that my cheap ticket only entitles me to 7 Kg of hand luggage.

Even though I had witnessed the futility of pleading, bargaining and even threatening the grounds staff into permitting one to hold onto bags that had been condemned to go into the cargo hold, I gave it a jolly good shot. It didn’t work for me either… until I said “… and will you take responsibility for my MacBook should it get damaged in the hold?”

Suddenly a whole bunch of other, hitherto unmentioned, airline policies and rules came into play: “you cannot check-in computers or anything with lithium batteries larger than a certain size into the hold… you will have to remove the computer, iPad and any battery packs,” the lady politely said.

This was just getting worse for me. I tried highlighting the obvious fact that a computer floating around the overhead compartment unprotected would not be a good idea, to no avail. So I left, in a huff, to buy a computer bag so that I could offload my fragile computer equipment and take that in as hand luggage, while my weekend bag went into the hold.

When I returned, I was still seething from the experience, and the check-in counter staff’s ultra polite demeanour only added to my fury. I was unfortunate enough to draw the same lady I had dealt with before and she was professional enough to pretend that this was my first time in her queue as we went through the now familiar check-in ritual.

As she weighed my weekend bag she gleefully exclaimed “Will you be taking that in as hand luggage or would you like us to check it in?”

“What!!?”

My weekend bag, now sans my MacBook, chargers, cables and all the paraphernalia that normally accompanies a computer, now weighed less than the maximum 7 Kg required for hand luggage. “I am taking in my computer,” I said protectively.

“Oh, you are allowed one hand luggage bag as well as a small computer bag,” she said nonchalantly.

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I don’t know if it was the angry grey smoke billowing out of my ears and nostrils that made her take a step back or whether she was just startled by her sudden realisation that the glorious unquestionable 7 Kg carry-on luggage limit was broken – either way, she ran… nay, she fled the scene and returned a few seconds later with her supervisor who approached, right arm stretched out front, muttering something about the airline policy and apologising about the inconvenience before she was even within earshot.

The airline ended up paying for my computer bag – it made me wish that I had splurged on a really nice bag, rather than the el-cheapo I had purchased. But the point of the story is not to rant about an airline whose broken carry-on baggage policy is out of sync with the reality of passenger’s experiences… but rather, this experience got me thinking about similar corollaries in financial services… such as those things that make perfect sense to practitioners steeped in years of payments industry experience, but make for “huh… that doesn’t make any sense…” moments with our customers, clients and merchants.

There are a number of examples of payment rules, industry architectures, value chain idiosyncrasies and general practices that, save for the thin veneer of modern technology at the surface, appear to hark back to the Stone Age days of payments – the antiquated four-party credit card model is one glaring example. I will be discussing some of these over the next few weeks, but I am keen to hear about some of your examples of idiosyncrasies that are so deeply embedded in our industry practices and architectures that we, as practitioners, accept as part of the reality of modern day payments, but that our customers, clients and merchants experience as the remaining vestiges of a primitive era that the payments industry still clings onto, that they have learned to navigate around everyday.