Online check-in is a farce

I’m a nervous traveller at the best of times, so by the time I turned up at the airport to fly to Zambia I was already wishing that fate would intervene in some non-fatal way to prevent me from having to go. As it happens, I almost got my wish.

The problem started when we got to the bag drop desk (having “checked in” online, whatever that means, the previous night). It turns out that British Airways attempt to enforce entry visa requirements at the home end of the journey, and won’t let anyone on the plane who doesn’t meet visa requirements. This makes sense, since it’s a waste of time and jet fuel to take someone halfway round the world just to find that they can’t enter the country.

Unfortunately BA don’t apply the Zambian visa rules, they apply their approximation of the Zambian visa rules, and it turns out we’re an edge case. In particular, in BA’s version of things you can’t go unless you have a return flight booked within 90 days. This makes no sense at all in practice, since we were travelling on a business visa, and could only get a 30-day initial allowance anyway (to be extended later). In BA’s version of events, travelling on a 30-day visa with an 89-day return date is OK, while using the same visa with a 110-day return date is forbidden.

This seems like another case of bugs in real world rules to me. The BA staff at Heathrow had clear instructions, which they followed to the letter. They were courteous and understanding, but the fault didn’t lie with them. The rules are, to stretch an analogy, written to ROM. In the end, we did what any programmer would recognise as a workaround: changed our return flight to an earlier date, flew, then changed it back.

Which brings me to my related complaint: what exactly was the point of “checking in” online the night before if it didn’t ensure we were cleared to fly? As far as I can tell, online checkin consists of nothing more than allocating your seat number and asking security questions, which get asked again anyway. The seat number is sometimes changed later at the whim of the airline as well. In terms of seat allocation, it’s turned an orderly process of arriving at the airport early to ensure you get your preferred seat into a competition to see who can get to an internet terminal closest (to the second) to 24 hours before the flight is scheduled. I was delayed 20 minutes because BA’s mobile web site was either broken or just not implemented, by which time half the plane was already full. What exactly does this online bun-fight achieve?

But enough of the whingeing. We made it here on schedule, and we’re settled into our new house. It’s much harder to pity yourself when you see the conditions many Zambians live in, but that’s a topic for another post.

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