Bug Report: United Airlines Self-Check-In

I recently used the United Airlines “self check-in” kiosk. It’s a touchscreen system at the airport that allows passengers to get a boarding pass for a flight without having to see a live ticket agent. United is keen for people to use them. The more popular the automation is, the less staff United needs for the ticket counters.

I’ve tried those kiosks twice, now, and twice they have failed me.

Here’s how they work. You touch the screen to start, and the system asks you for a credit card or any of various other forms of identification. After receiving that, the system conducts you through a series of screens to identify your flight and seat assignments. The boarding pass pops out and you’re done. Theoretically.

The first time I used one was just after they appeared at Washington Dulles airport, my home base. On my flight that day, I had applied for and received an upgrade to business class. A passenger can upgrade using paper coupons, electronic “coupons” stored in my frequent flyer account, or by spending frequent flyer miles. The self-check-in system correctly informed me that my upgrade had been granted, and then asked whether I wanted to provide paper upgrade coupons or use electronic ones from my frequent flyer account. My answer was “none of the above, I want to use miles” but there was no way to select that option. That option was missing. Since I had no paper coupons, and had no electronic coupons in my account, I was forced to abort the process and get in line for a human. The humans, it turned out, knew what to do.

If it is an ordinary operation to use miles for a service upgrade, why couldn’t the kiosk handle it?

For months after that incident I just ignored the kiosks. It’s too annoying to stand in line to use the automated system only to have to go stand in another line to see a human when the automation breaks down. I am a very frequent flyer. I often use my miles to upgrade. Whether the omission of that feature was an oversight or a calculated decision, I think United screwed up. Even if there’s some compelling reason to omit that capability, the system could still have displayed a message to the effect that the feature was coming soon, or that it was available from the human staff. The incident left me with not just disatisfied with the kiosks, but with the feeling that United is careless about the needs of its customers.

The next time I considered using the kiosks was on New Years Eve, 2003. The line for humans looked pretty long, but the self check-in kiosks seemed deserted. What the heck, I thought, I’ll try them again. I expected no trouble with my upgrade, since I was using coupons.

The system took me through all of the screens, then announced that the printer was broken and that I should try again with another kiosk or see a human agent. Grumbling, I stepped up to the kiosk next to it, which cheerfully informed me that I had already-checked-in-everything’s-fine-have-a-nice-flight-goodbye. I supposed it assumed that I already had my boarding passes. Meanwhile, the first kiosk I tried had reverted back to its welcome screen, luring unsuspecting travellers to the same time wasting trap.

What are the bugs, here? I think any of the following:

  • The kiosk apparently does not specifically log whether or not a boarding pass was actually issued to the passenger. Or if it is logged, that function failed for me.
  • The printer failure message directs passengers to use another kiosk, even though that is guaranteed never to help in the case of a printer failure.
  • The kiosk assumes that passengers must have no need for its services if they’ve already checked in. But what if I’d lost my boarding pass, or wanted to change my seat, or wanted to un-upgrade or re-upgrade? The kiosk should not just kick me off if I’ve already checked-in.
  • Even if the kiosk is intended only for initial check-ins, there could and should be a message directing passengers to see a human agent in the case of a lost boarding pass or a seat change request, etc.
  • The kiosk continues to take new users even when it knows (after the first failure) that its printer is broken.

Many testers who work on a kiosk like this might think of testing the printer failed condition, but most of those, I suspect, would have stopped after seeing that the apparently “correct” error message appeared. But the bug I found is only revealed when you go beyond the simple function tests and look at the complete lifecycle of a passengers interaction with the system.

The Moral
The moral, here, might be “scenario testing gives you value that function testing does not.” Another moral might be “watch users use your system.” If I was United, I would be studying log files and surveillance video of users trying to figure out the kiosks. I would count the number of people who struck out at the kiosks and defected to seek an audience with a friendly and expensive human.

Oh, and that’s another moral: friendly and expensive humans are difficult to replace with computers, because humans can cope with things that go awry. That’s why pilotless aircraft will never ferry human passengers. We can accept humans making mistakes, but we can’t accept machines making a mistake that a human might have averted.

United’s brittle software has cost it real money, too. The reason I was flying to Las Vegas on New Years Eve was to get 4000 more miles to qualify for a special status as a United frequent flyer. I flew to Vegas and immediately got back on the very same plane to come home. I would have been happy to purchase a ticket and not flown anywhere, just to get the miles. United could sell the seat to someone else, and I could stay comfortably at home, confident in my exalted new status as an elite United customer. Everybody wins. For whatever reason, United can’t do that.

But when I got the airport, they announced that the flight was overbooked and asked for volunteers to be bumped from the flight. I considered volunteering, as long as I was credited with the mileage. The gate agent said that might be possible, but on reflection, I realized there was nothing the agent could say that would convince me that United’s computer was smart enough to give me the right kind of mileage credit. My lack of confidence in United therefore led directly to them kicking someone else off the flight and giving them a free ticket or travel voucher.

A Personal Appeal to United
Hire me. I’ll give you a discounted rate. I’ll work for miles (literally and figuratively). Let me help you test your kiosks so that your customers will have more confidence in you. Look, I can’t afford for you to go out of business. I’ve invested too much in you. Don’t make me start over with another airline.

5 thoughts on “Bug Report: United Airlines Self-Check-In

  1. I wouldn’t actually consider all those things bugs but rather missing features. Of course, I don’t know how United specified the original feature so perhaps they are bugs.

    I wonder if these were known missing features and they were dropped to meet schedule?

  2. In response to Jason’s comment “I wouldn’t actually consider all those things bugs but rather missing features”… what real difference does the taxonomy make? The outcome is irritation for the customer and a loss to the airline. If I were a stockholder in United Airlines, those effects would bug me. Cem Kaner’s definition of “bug” (I believe it’s Cem’s) is “something that would bug someone that matters”.

    Some might define “bug” as a coding error, something wrong with the software. I think this is too limiting. I define “bug” as something wrong with the whole system.

    —Michael B.

  3. Michael, calm down, Jason may be right, Try to think as a third party, not as a victim customer.

    [James’ Reply: I don’t see that Michael is overly excited. Remember, we’re testers. Our job is not to avoid seeing problems. Our job is not to help our customers avoid seeing problems. Our job is to provide information that our clients need to make good decisions about the product. It’s exactly the “victim customer” we need to champion, in order to do that job.]

  4. Hi James,

    Maybe I am too late to comment on this, considering it was posted 12 yrs ago but I would like to do it anyways.
    Should not the kiosk with printer issue directly display a static message on the screen ‘Unable to print.’ so that user immediately moves to someplace else?
    The airline would be highly respected for not wasting people’s time.


  5. I wonder, in 2018, did United ever get these issues resolved? Sounds like they completely dropped the ball on the “customer experience” stakeholder who matters. I think I experience this exact same catch-22 issue a few years back.

    [James’ Reply: At least for the scenarios I represent, the kiosks have been working well for years, now. There are occasional problems when two different airlines are trying to cooperate. Recently, there was a snag when I took a Lufthansa flight that had been booked through the United Airlines website. They are all part of the same alliance, but it took fifteen minutes or so for the agents to work out whatever the issue was.]

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