The death of the check-in counter

San Francisco International AirportAs a kid, and as an adult aviation geek, I loved roaming the departure areas of the airport. The check-in counters always held the promise of adventures to exotic, far-flung locations. Each logo had a story to tell. It was a symbol of a fantasy wish to escape my humdrum life.

Today that is changing in two ways. Several large international airports have moved to a shared-facility model. The monitor above the check-in desk advises what airline is checking in. Right now it could be Thai to Bangkok. An hour later it will be USAirways to Charlotte. Nothing is permanent. In many airports, the staff isn’t employed by the airline but by the airport authority or a ground handling company on a contractual basis. In some cases, the common-use check-in desks or even entire terminals are branded by airline alliances such as Star Alliance, etc.; the airline actually checking in passengers is secondary. Today most airlines market their alliance memberships almost as much as themselves.

The second change is found in almost all domestic US airports. Merger mania has left us with four major airlines – Delta, United, Southwest, and soon a newly merged USAirways and American Airlines – plus a few niche players. The ones that are left are doing more with less real estate. If the airport doesn’t have hub or focus-city status, there are probably acres of empty counter space.

Some airports still can fascinate, however. O’Hare’s international terminal five still has dedicated counter space for its tenants. Sometimes they are shared and crammed with multiple airline branding. It works if one airline has a morning rotation and the other airline is an evening visitor. Often times the airline might not even be a daily visitor. Yet regardless of who is currently using the terminal, every airline’s logo stays on display.

O’Hare really needs an expanded international terminal, but I fear the new facility, if built during my lifetime, will opt for efficiency. I doubt it will retain its old-fashioned charm.

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