Thursday, January 13, 2011

Checking In at a Japanese Airport

I had another food post in the pipeline for today (weird flavors of Japanese Kit-Kats--don't worry, you'll get your fix of watching us suffer). But while trying to figure out my travel schedule for an upcoming workshop in Hong Kong, I got to pondering the check-in system Nana and I have seen here in Japan.

We've checked-in for probably a half-dozen flights so far (including a few while we lived in Korea) and never have we needed more than 15-20 minutes to get from the door of the airport to the other side of security. In fact, as described in an earlier post, we've even had a check-in agent book us on an earlier flight with less than fifteen minutes to get to our gate. The agent assured us that we had plenty of time . . . and in fact we made it with five minutes to spare.

So how does that work?

I think there are three main factors:

  1. Personnel. Compared to American airports, Japanese airports are simply teeming with employees. Not only is every check-in desk fully staffed (I say "staffed" and not "manned" because there seems to be an unwritten rule that any airline employee who interacts with the public must be a twenty-something female), there are also check-in agents roaming the lines, giving assistance as needed. The security line, too, has its team of rovers.
  2. Triage. Both at the check-in desks and the security checkpoints, "rovers" start pulling out people according to departure time and shuffling them off to priority lines.
  3. Traffic Management. In Fukuoka and at both Narita and Haneda in Tokyo, the majority of the shops and restaurants are located outside the security checkpoint. Passengers can wait in this area until the "big boards" tell them to go to the gate. This allows the airport to stagger the "rushes" to the security checkpoint by fudging the call time a few minutes either way.
  4. Layout. The airports we've been to have had many small security checkpoints, each serving a handful of gates that are right on the other side of the checkpoint. Coupled with a boarding pass that tells you which checkpoint to use, this minimizes the lines at any one checkpoint.
Now, this system seems to be working brilliantly here in Japan, but I can think of at least two reasons it would never work in the US. First, and most obviously, there is no way an airline is going to pay for extra people to help you check in faster.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the Japanese system works best if most passengers show up an hour or two before their flights. In a pinch, it can rush a handful of latecomers through without causing any major disruptions, but if everyone showed up 30 minutes before the flight, all heck would break loose.

You see where I'm going. I consider myself a responsible person who is more than willing to weigh personal convenience against the well-being of the whole. (I am a teacher, after all.) But I can't help looking at this Hong Kong flight next week and thinking . . . do I really need to get there an hour early? When I'm reasonably sure they can hustle me through if I show up with twenty minutes to spare?

(And thus concludes this evening's lesson in game theory and airport design.)