Digitalist Network // February 27 2018

Air travel: a service design analysis

This part one of a multi-part, in-depth analysis of pain points, service paths and key performance indicators (KPIs) in the process of moving to another country. Parts 1–3 deal with air travel.


Part one: Procuring tickets and checking in.

Here’s the thing about Finland. It rains. A lot. All the time. Combined with Apple’s space grey-like darkness for three months, it makes a man miserable. No fun. I’m guessing that’s why we have a big games industry. Too small for movies. Too cynical for pop music. Just the right climate for staying indoors and making something to be enjoyed solo. I needed an escape plan after spending a year of being socially active in Remote Year.

Here I am. In London. Typing on a computer. Clicking a mouse. Essentially doing something the same job that I did in Helsinki, a job that is probably the most globalised job in the world. A mouse-clicking typist. Or a designer. Whichever you want to call it.


Booking a flight. The easy way.

After booking a flight with the call centre — funny thing about traveling around the world on airplanes, you gather a lot of points doing so, and call centre because, you know, the website won’t allow me to do it — I managed to get myself and four suitcases to Heathrow airport. Which was indeed the success criteria of my journey.

Traveling with points and a lot of luggage must have not hit any KPIs in the design phase of these systems. Quite understandable. Also, calling is now a completely underrated means of interacting with services. It just gets the job done without cumbersome user interfaces or obscurely placed tick boxes that must be ticked but you always seem to miss.

Think of the call centre as a place where there are real, living, human fleshbots clicking the tick boxes for you. Question, question, question. Thank you. Done.

Booking it yourself usually follows this pattern:

  • Click, click, click, error, click, double check, triple check, click.
  • Missed a tick box, click, confirm.
  • “No I don’t want it”, click, confirm, double check, triple check.
  • Get your wallet (usually under the sofa cushions), type in numbers, double check, triple check, error, “Oh, it was a six”, turn the card around, type more numbers, click.
  • Open an app on your phone to confirm the payment, scan fingerprint, click.
  • “Where did I put my passport?”, rummage through all the drawers, type numbers, double check, triple check.
  • Select a year, “Why do these go all the way to 2615?”, click, double check, triple check, click once more.
  • Take a screenshot because you don’t trust you are going to get that email.
  • Re-send the booking confirmation to your email.
  • Get five emails that all have the subject “LH2474 HEL-LHR 5WZYX3 BOOKING // JOHN DOE S7C”
  • Read the first email.
  • “No, not that one”
  • The second one is a receipt.
  • The third one tells you about amazing car rental options at your destination.
  • The fourth and fifth ones are the booking-confirmations-but-not-the-ticket-that-you-are-not-quite sure-if-you-need-to-print-so-you-print-them-anyway. Twice, because you are not sure if re-sending the confirmation changed something. Both of them are fourteen pages long and the last page is always blank.
  • You are running out of ink on your printer.
  • Wait for the ticket.
  • It doesn’t arrive.
  • Call the call centre.
  • Get an email with the subject: “LH2474 HEL-LHR 5WZYX3 BOOKING // JOHN DOE S7C” telling you about amazing car rental options at your destination.
  • Get the ticket to your email with the subject: “LH2474 HEL-LHR 5WZYX3 BOOKING // JOHN DOE S7C”

Congratulations! You now have the ticket. You see that you can put it in your Passbook app on your phone. “Neat” you say to yourself and tap a few buttons. You get to the airport, check in your bags and the machine spits out a ticket. “Well, what’s the point in that” you ask yourself. We’ll get to this whole experience a bit later.


At the airport

You start your airport experience by getting out of the overpriced taxi. It usually rains and the driver is chucking your luggage in to a puddle while you are still making sure you left nothing in the backseat. Twice. Thrice.

You would have taken an Uber, but restrictions, monopoly, cartels. You could have also taken public transport, but you calculated at home that you need one hour for the travel, one hour to get the ticket, one hour to stand in security, one hour to get to the gate. So you think you are in a hurry and take the taxi instead.

The result is that you are at the airport four hours before your flight. Wet. You see many empty check-in points. You know that yours is always the furthest one, but decide to find the monitor that tells you the correct one.

Walking back and forth you find the screen hidden behind some pillar. It has a lot of small, yellow text on a blue background. Why blue? Why yellow? Colour blindness? Accessibility?

Your flight leaves at 9.15, but the monitor is now the flights from 9.16 to 9.24. You wait six minutes staring at the screen for your flight to show up. While the monitor is showing the flights between 23.33 and 0.16, a golden retriever sniffs your leg and you can’t help yourself but to pet it. You look up and see that the monitor is showing again the flights from 9.16 to 9.24. You wait another six minutes. Confirmed. It’s the furthest desk, but because you are there four hours early, it’s not open yet.

There are no seats, so you stand for two hours thinking. Thinking, because you don’t want to waste the precious battery life of your phone.

Airports are one of the customer experiences ever created in human history. They are non-places which I loathe. Designed usually by Evil Architects Plc using some perverse metric, in which being really uncomfortable and stressed makes you consume on overpriced cosmetics, micellar water with Q10, Nebuchadnezzar-sized alcohol bottles and diabetes-inducing amounts of candy. They are unmemorable places that have maximised the utilisation rate of the weary travelers’ purchasing power and minimised his comfort.

Except if you fly a lot. In business class. Or you are playing the credit card game correctly. Then you get to go the lounge.


The Lounge



THE LOUNGE. There are fountains and bonsai trees and coy ponds and geisha filing your toenails while you read obscurely-sized newspapers or browse the Internet on a WiFi so fast that it makes Star Trek’s warp nine look like a snail race.

They give you oddly tubular socks and slippers so soft that probably millions of lambs were butchered to get the softest possible wool possible to walk on cashmere rugs covering the Carrara marble floor.

You see the people that you thought only existed in stock photos doing things what they do in those photos. Smiling, agreeing, eating Instagram-worthy food prepared by the top-chefs of the world. Terrine and coulis and other French words.

The Lounge, my friends, is one of the last places on earth where magic still exists. There are wizards who look like David Copperfield casting spells that bring back Liberace to play appropriately named lounge music on the grand piano. And unicorns in soft focus farting rainbow-coloured clouds of Chanel №5.

The Lounge is a place of peace, tranquility and harmony that makes you think: “What did the humankind do to deserve this?”


Play the game

But, as I said, to get in to that wonderful place you need to play the game of adulthood correctly.

First, ally with everyone. There are three clans to choose from. Clan Star Alliance, wearing grey, is the largest by a small margin. Clan SkyTeam, wearing blue, is the next largest. And clan OneWorld, the smallest of the three, wearing kind-of-purple-but-not-really.

Since joining a clan is free, you should join all of them. There are other clans, but don’t worry about them too much. Pick the one you are flying the most with, especially if you happen to fly first class, even once, because that will boost your points by a lot. It’s the boss fight of traveling by air.

Because you have enough points you are already dreaming of sitting in the lounge. WiFi, pedicures, The Financial Times, the Bentley catalogue, terrine, coulis, chatting with CEOs and CFOs about KPIs.

“Mmm. KPIs,” you think and see in your mind’s eye a doughnut with pink glazing and the letters k, p and i written in some sugary substance. You are starving.


KPI Doughnut
A Delicious KPI doughnut


But the you snap out of your dream and head for the check-in.


Check this in

You arrive at the check-in desk to find that the mass out-smarted you. They took their place in the queue before it opened.

But, you, you were even smarter. You checked in last night already. You have the ticket in your phone. All you need to do is use the self check-in machine to print out your luggage tags.

The procedure is usually the following:

  • Select the airline. Easy enough.
  • “Scan your passport. Enter booking reference number,” the low-res screen states.
  • “Booking reference, just because my passport is in my bag,” you think.
  • Open Passbook on your phone.
  • Select the ticket.
  • “Hmm. The booking reference isn’t on it”
  • Take off your backpack.
  • Remove all items from your backpack on to the floor because the two fourteen-page long booking confirmations are usually at the bottom of the bag.
  • Scan through the documents, not finding the booking reference.
  • “Maybe it’s on the printed ticket”
  • The ticket, which you printed out with the last remaining drop of cyan ink is only eight pages long — last page blank — , sort of washed out and full of magenta and yellow stripes. You printed it out, because… you don’t know why you printed it out.
  • You squint really hard, but can’t find the booking reference on it.
  • Check the Passbook ticket again.
  • “Not here”
  • Open the email that the tickets were on.
  • A-ha! It’s written on the subject line of the email!
  • For some reason you say the booking reference out loud when you push the buttons on the screen which is recessed so far back from the glass it makes aiming for the right button incredibly difficult.
  • Backspace erases the whole number.
  • Re-type.
  • Confirm.
  • “Forbidden items…” “Uh… no.”
  • “No, again”
  • “Seat number? Didn’t I do this already yesterday?”
  • Open Passbook to check your seat number.
  • You have the right seat.
  • Confirm.
  • “Four pieces of luggage”
  • Confirm.
  • “Please wait while we print your tickets”
  • The machine spits out a ticket on an awkwardly long piece of heat sensitive paper. Ticket, that you already had in your Passbook.
  • The machine then spits out only one luggage tag.
  • “Thank you”
  • Mystified, you decide to go the bag drop.
  • You repack your backpack.
  • The stuff you took out won’t fit in anymore.
  • Unpack.
  • Repack.
  • Still no.
  • You need to open one of suitcases to put the stuff that doesn’t fit.
  • Success!
  • You go to the bag drop.
  • “I have four b…”
  • “It always does that,” the clerk interrupts you
  • Somehow it takes half an hour of frantic typing for the check-in attendant to get your luggage tagged.
  • You also get a ticket printed on thicker material this time.
  • “Use this ticket to get through the gates,” she says.
  • You now have four tickets.
  • You fold the the latest ticket in half, because it’s just ridiculously oversized.
  • The little flappy bit of the tickets rips a little while doing that.
  • Worried that you might lose the the little flappy bit, you fold the ticket once more and place it in between the pages of your passport. The little flappy bit rips a bit more while doing that.
  • You walk to the other end airport and find the electronic gates.
  • You take out the ticket from your passport, unfold it, ripping once again the little flappy bit a bit more. The little flappy bit is now dangling by it’s corner to the rest of the ticket. You are starting to panic. You don’t what will happen if you lose the little flappy bit.


John Doe torn airline ticket
Why does that flappy bit still exist?


You scan your ticket and enter the security area.

This story is based on my own experiences. Everything here is true. David Copperfield can make Liberace come back. Flappy bits on cardboard tickets cause anxiety. KPI doughnuts are delicious.

By Mikko Pitkänen, Senior UX Designer, Digitalist

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