Hanging out in the airport again, waiting for a flight. It's remarkably hard to concentrate in an airport, even with the iPod swamping the crowd noise into a dull roar, so I'm blogging while I wait for the expensive cheese "pizza" to hit my bloodstream. Hey, it's all carbon chains in the end, right?
Sitting at the gate's got me thinking about Southwest's online check-in system. Starting one minute after midnight the day of the flight, you can check in through the web. Today I hit the web at 1pm for an 8:50 flight and got in the "B" line, which means all the "A" line folks must've hit it this morning. Now I'm curious: how much useful information can they possibly get from having someone check in 12 hours before the flight?
As far as I can tell, the check-in can perform a few useful functions: (1) tell them roughly how many people are planning to get on the plane, (2) tell security that the person walking into the boarding area has a ticket, and (3) tell the people at the gate that the person getting on the plane has a driver's license.
Except it doesn't seem to work like that. The more time between check-in and boarding, the less reliable the passenger count's going to be. Twelve hours is a long time. And it could be longer: there doesn't seem to be much to stop some enterprising soul from setting up an automatic check-in service, where, for a nominal fee, their servers will automatically check you in the day of the flight and e-mail your boarding pass to you.
And what about our friend at security? All he really knows is that the person walking through the gate has a piece of paper, printed on her home printer, that happens to look like a boarding pass. He doesn't check it against a master list of issued passes. All he checks is to see if the thing resembles a pass, has a name that matches the driver's license being waved at him, and that the driver's license picture looks like the harried, shoeless traveler doing the waiving.
And finally, there's the gate attendant. The gate attendant does check the boarding pass against a database but doesn't check ID. So all she knows is that the person bought a ticket and which ticket holders got on the plane, both of which she could tell without the check-in step.
By the way, one other thing this line of reasoning should tell you is that the photo ID can't be all that important. After all, there's really not much to stop someone from using a fake boarding pass to get past security, as long as it looks more-or-less real, and then switching to a real boarding pass with a different name to get on the plane. So why do we check ID? My guess is two reasons: it makes the public feel safer even if they really aren't, and it discourages people from reselling their tickets which makes the airlines happy. The real security comes from the metal detectors, the reinforced cockpit doors, and a generation of cell-phone toting passengers who will never, ever let a bunch of folks with utility knives hijack their plane.