BA Eyes Virtual Queuing As IATA Chief Predicts Airport Chaos

British Airways is set to launch a new virtual queuing app for its Heathrow Terminal 5 check-in desks. The news comes on the same day that the airline’s former CEO, Willie Walsh, warned that airports wouldn’t be able to handle the volume of passengers if everybody needs to visit a check-in desk.

British Airways, Willie Walsh, Check-in Chaos
British Airways is eyeing virtual queuing as it looks to ramp up travel. Photo: Vincenzo Pace – Simple Flying

Across the world, countries are reopening their borders. While travel is more accessible than it has been for a long time, many hurdles remain. These include proving COVID status before travel. This creates a lot of extra work for airlines, with many like Etihad launching processes to verify such data before arrival at the airport.

The problem

Many countries currently require all passengers to provide a COVID-19 certificate on entry. It is generally up to the airline to check this before travel, with some countries fining airlines which fly non-compliant passengers. This process takes time, typically at a check-in desk.

The issue arises with the design of airports. With the rise of mobile boarding passes and online check-in, the check-in desk has become obsolete for many passengers. Former British Airways CEO turned IATA chief Willie Walsh warned that suddenly requiring every passenger to visit a check-in desk will cause chaos,

“If every customer traveling has to go to an airline check-in desk and show evidence in using paper of having filled in forms, of having evidence of a PCR test, and that these have to be checked by people at check-in counters. The processing time alone goes way beyond the average processing time of that we’re used to.”

British Airways, Willie Walsh, Check-in Chaos
Willie Walsh pointed out that most passengers now avoid the check-in desks. Photo: British Airways

He added,

“Don’t forget, most people actually don’t go to a check-in desk or haven’t. If you go back, I think in 2019 most people were actually checking in online or checking in using the airline app.”

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British Airways to the rescue?

Many airlines are asking passengers to undergo document verification ahead of arrival at the airport. IATA has launched its Travel Pass app, which it is encouraging member airlines to trial on select routes. Some airlines, such as British Airways, have also launched their own initiative, while the British flag carrier is also using the VeriFLY verification platform.

British Airways is now throwing a new app into the mix. Customers checking in for select flights at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 will be able to join a virtual queue for the check-in desks. Customers will prebook a timeslot for check-in ahead of their arrival.

British Airways, Willie Walsh, Check-in Chaos
British Airways will allow passengers to pre-book a check-in time. Photo: British AirwaysBritish Airways, Willie Walsh, Check-in Chaos

They will then have to mill around until it is their turn to check in, at which point they will get a QR code to allow them to skip the queue. For those not using the system, customers can either queue up as usual or join a virtual line on arrival by scanning another QR code.

Commenting on the new app, Declan Pollard, British Airways’ Head of Heathrow Customer Experience, said,

“In this new Covid-19 era we know that customers have been travelling less frequently than they normally would, and in most cases not at all. We understand many people will feel unfamiliar with the airport journey, so we are committed to exploring how technology can simplify that experience for them.”

Do you think document verification will cause chaos at airports? Is virtual queueing the answer? Let us know what you think and why in the comments below!