Single-piece check-in?

May 26, 2022
What if we re-engineerd our airports so that we could offer single-piece flow for every passenger?

I previously asked: How could we reduce some of the queues at the airport?. And you answered.

Now it’s my turn to offer a crazy answer.

But first a disclaimer. I’m a software engineer. I’m not a civil engineer. I don’t design airports. And while there are many similarities between the flow of passengers through an airport, an the flow of software changes through a CI/CD pipeline, there are also many differences.

So before any civil engineers send me hate mail criticizing my approach below, please take this in the right light: It’s a thought experiment.

So with that out of the way… What if we re-engineerd our airports so that we could offer single-piece flow for every passenger (or family)?

That is to say, imagine walking up to your airline’s check-in counter, presenting your passport. And from that point on, the agent:

  • Gave you your boarding pass,
  • Checked your luggage in to the final destination,
  • Asked you to take off your shoes and remove your laptop from your bag for the security screening,
  • Stamped your passport with the exit stamp,
  • Walked you to your boarding gate

We’ll stop there. We know that not all passengers arrive at the airport at the same time, so I won’t strain credulity by having the agent help you board, too.

What would be the implications of this type of flow?

Well, the first thing that comes to my mind is that the airport is not designed for this type of flow. It would have to be physically re-designed. We’d want the check-in desk right next to the security checkpoint, which in turn is right next to the immigration control. Really, we’d want a single station that handles all three purposes.

We’d also need to re-train everyone. Of course that would be a bureaucratic nightmare. Is it even legal to have a single person act as an airline agent, an airport security agent and a national immigration agent? Probably not. But let’s run with it for the thought experiment.

So now all of our airline agents, security officrs, and immigration offers are cross-trained to do all three jobs. And every check-in desk can not only issue boarding passes and take your luggage, they can also run you through the metal detectors and stamp your passports.

We’ve eliminated the queues, right? Well, except for one. There’s still that first queue. The one where you wait to meet your one, dedicated agent.

Would this be a net improvement? I honestly don’t know. And of course I’m overlooking tons of corner cases. (Where would TSA precheck fit into this new workflow?)

But what I think is interesting about this thought experiment is that, while it may seem outrageous at the scale of an airport, it’s a pretty fair representation of at least how I felt about continuous delivery the first time I heard about it.

The project I was working on was absolutely not engineered for single-piece flow, or small batches. It was built entirely on assumptions about long release cycles. So while I don’t know if anything even approaching this would ever work in an airport, I do know that this kind of creative problem solving, and attitude shift is not only necessary, but appropriate, in the world of software delivery.

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