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This is a good development for passengers, who must wonder why they still have to check in for flights in 2017. But for many airlines, check-in still serves a valuable purpose.

Seeking to make the pre-flying process more seamless, Delta Air Lines is automatically checking in some customers who download the airline’s iPhone app.

The news got some buzz Thursday on social media and on airline-focused blogs, but auto check-in is not new. Continental Airlines introduced it about a decade ago, with the airline calculating it no longer made sense to ask passengers to confirm they planned to take flights they had already booked.

And through its Innovation Hub, Lufthansa Group has created a system called, a platform that automatically checks in customers on more than 100 airlines, including many that do not partner with Lufthansa. To participate, customers must share their complete itinerary with the site.

At least at first, Delta’s auto check-in feature will be limited to customers who have the most updated version of its iPhone app, so passengers who use or airport kiosks presumably must check in as normal. Customers with the iPhone app should see a boarding pass 24 hours before departure. Delta hasn’t introduced the feature for Android users yet.

“The latest update to the Fly Delta app is in phased roll out in the app store, and includes an automated check-in experience designed to help take friction out of the travel process in response to customer feedback,” Delta said Thursday in a statement.

UPDATE: Since we published this story, Delta has started offering automatic check in for Android.

Auto Check-in not so popular

From a customer standpoint, Delta’s decision makes sense. It seems anachronistic that customers still check in, considering the process was created decades ago, well before today’s technological innovations. Not long ago, a passenger had to check in with an agent at the gate, or in the airport lobby. It could be a time-consuming process.

But for the most part, auto check-in has not caught on, and while Continental’s successor, United Airlines, adopted the technology after the two airlines merged, it no longer uses it. Another airline, FlyDubai, once scrapped check-in completely only to bring it back after it realized its automated system wasn’t perfect.

Mark Nasr, now Air Canada’s vice president for Loyalty, eCommerce, and customer relationship management, worked on Continental’s auto check-in feature early in his career and said it had some shortcomings, though he said Air Canada likely will introduce a similar feature at some point.

One major problem: Check-in is still the best way for an airline to track whether customers will show up. While leisure travelers generally fly on itineraries they’ve booked, business travelers often do not. But usually, business travelers who do not plan to fly also do not check-in, giving airport agents airline advanced notice.

On Delta, a customer who does not check-in can be removed from a flight 30 or 45 minutes prior to departure, depending the airport. But if customers check-in, Delta will not take them off the flight until they fail to show up at the gate either 15 minutes or five minutes before departure, depending on the route. That doesn’t give agents much time to fill the seats with standby passengers.

“No-shows, as it is, are always important to manage carefully, and a customer that checks-in is considered very unlikely to no-show,” Nasr said. “And as you get closer to departure, it becomes more disruptive to have customers you think will show up who don’t actually show up.”

Eventually, Nasr said airlines and airports may solve this problem with technology. Airlines might use beacons, GPS or biometrics to follow customers at the airport, assuming passengers opt-in. If GPS data tells an airline a customer is at or near the airport, the airline would assume the passenger plans to travel. That could make check-in obsolete.

But check-in serves another important purpose for airlines. At many carriers, a significant number of passengers book through third-parties. That means check-in could be the first chance an airline has to sell ancillary items, such as extra legroom seats, directly to customers. In automated check-in, an airline could still put an offer on the app, but it’s possible a customer would never see it.

“It really is one of the seldom catch-all parts of the journey,” Nasr said. “You can have access to the customer and a chance to sell these products. It can make a significant difference, especially for customers who book on third-party channels.”

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Tags: air canada, airline innovation, airline passenger experience, delta air lines

Photo credit: Customers who have Delta's newest iPhone app likely will no longer have to check in for their flights. Pictured is a Delta A321. Delta Air Lines

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