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British Airways trialling virtual check-in queues at Heathrow

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British Airways has launched a new ‘virtual check-in queue’ option for selected flights at Heathrow using a technology platform from Qmatic.

You will, if you choose, no longer need to join a lengthy check-in queue. You can pre-book a time slot to check-in in advance of arriving at the airport.

The trial will run for three months on selected flights. If your flight is included, you will receive an email prior to travel inviting you to book a check-in slot.

British Airways Qmatic

The service is not compulsory, and you will still be able to join the main queue if you wish. Customers who have pre-booked slots will use dedicated desks.

This is clearly a positive move – anything which reduces queuing can’t be bad – but there are two obvious problems.

The first is that Terminal 5 Departures doesn’t have a lot of options, landside, to pass the time if you arrive early. The shopping mall is airside rather than landside.

The second issue is that, for most people, the time you arrive at Heathrow is pretty much out of your control. You are at the mercy of the Underground network, the Heathrow Express (miss your train and it’s a 15 minute wait) or the M4.

None of these options would give you much confidence to commit to a timed check-in slot.

If there were a large number of refreshment options pre check-in I would, in theory, be happy to arrive early and have a drink whilst waiting for my slot. In reality, Terminal 5 is fairly short of chairs – let alone cafes – before check-in unless you head to Arrivals.

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Comments (68)

This article is closed to new comments. Feel free to ask your question in the HfP forums.

  • Dubious says:

    RE: Check-In Time Slots.
    How much a commitment is actually required? If you show up earlier than expected, could you simply proceed to a regular check-in desk?

  • TimM says:

    This will not reduce net queuing, it will increase it unless there are more desk/staff. Queuing theory states that to minimise net queuing you should have a free-for-all allowing people to decide themselves which desk to queue at and to be free to swap between queues. Any constraints, conditions or sub-divisions increases net queuing. A typical main post office queue, with a single line and announcement of which desk for the next person to go to is the extreme worst example of inefficient queuing but does appeal to the British sense of fairness.

    The only instance where pre-booking a slot could help is to give advance notification to the check-in management when extra staff will be required but I doubt this is the objective here.

    • J says:

      Or if they only offer slots before or after a predicted rush.

      • Rob says:

        It has been proven that the single queue model used by the Post Office is more efficient – which is also common sense.

        • David S says:

          There was a single queue when I had my COVID jab and it worked perfectly 😁

          • TimM says:

            If you had the option of queuing at the vaccination bay of your choice, i.e. the one which you judge to have the optimum speed to length ratio, and therefore the minimum waiting time, then it would have been more efficient. As soon as you join one queue, that changes all the equations for everyone else.

            Imagine if supermarkets only had one queue for all tills? Supermarket rage would ensue.

          • The Savage Squirrel says:

            My local Wilkos and Iceland both do this single queue model and I haven’t seen too many punchups.

            It’s not a theory really, it’s maths. If you have many independently queueing checkout kiosks then there is the possibility that one has a queue of more than one person, while one at the other end of the store is idle. The second this happens you are being innefficient in use of resources. The single queue model means this cannot happen so must be more efficient. The tradeoff is the time walking from the central queue to the booths so there’s a physical contraint to how much efficiency you can save. At what point the time loss from this journey cancels out the efficiency of the single queue system depends on the length of the walk from the central hub, and the average interaction time for each customer at the kiosk, but is fairly simple to model and could be expressed as a linear equation.

          • TimM says:

            @ The Savage Squirrel
            “Theory” in logic terms is the set of proofs that follow from whatever axioms and assumptions are made. This covers all of mathermatics. Arithmetic is theory, except on a computer because a computer only has finite memory and therefore arithmetic on a computer cannot be proved to be correct. Queuing theory is sound and and concrete (meaning is is provable both formally and informally).

            The “single queue model” can never be more efficient than the “free for all” model, regardless of resources, for the reasons you gave. Think of extreme cases.
            1) You have a million checkout desks, with their usual practical physical separation, say 3m and only one queue. Put the front end of the queue in the middle for efficiency. The mean distance needed to walk from the front of the queue is 750km. At 4km/hour brisk walking pace that is just short of 8 hrs to walk from the single queue to the check-in desk, on average.
            2) You have at least as many check-in desks as there are passengers at at any one time with a free for all, i.e. no single queue. Everyone checks-in instantly in parallel with no queuing involved.

            Queuing theory was developed to deal with situations of when there are more people queuing than there are desks. The free for all is always optimum. Get people in a line, or categorise, and the efficiency drops off quickly.

          • TimM says:

            Small correction, it would take 21.4 years to walk to your check-in desk in scenario 1 above. That is a long time before your flight to arrive at the airport.

        • Doug M says:

          I guess there are different ways to measure efficiency. But what is clearly the biggest upside to this is no particularly bad queue where someone has 20 minutes at the counter rather than 2.

        • TimM says:

          No. The inefficiency results from the time taken to get from the single queue to the appropriate counter – including delayed reaction, missing the cue, physical time walking and hold-ups in the queue if several counters become available at once. A single queue absolutely maximises the inefficiencies.

          The post office use it because people think it is fairer. It is but at the cost of maximum average queuing time.

          Clearly a single queue is not common sense when the opposite is intuitively obvious to me. Thankfully I am supported by queuing theory – a branch of probabilistic mathematics.

          • Rhys says:

            How much more efficient are multiple queues, though? If they only decrease queueing time by a few % on average then I would argue that doesn’t outweigh the benefits of a single queue, which is that you don’t risk being stuck behind a queue where one person’s case is particularly complex and takes a disproportionately long time to resolve.

            I would rather wait an extra 30 seconds if it guarantees that I won’t be stuck in THAT queue…

          • Dubious says:

            But does this ignore human behaviour (reality versus theory)? The impact of people who are not paying attention and just follow the person in front – this ends up with one queue being longer than others.

            The post office really needs two queues – those with quick tasks and another for those that want a chat and a bit of a natter at the counter.

          • TimM says:

            @Rhys, yes it is unfair on the individual in the example you give, but much more efficient overall.

            I look at the people in each queue too and make prejudicial assumptions then place my bets with my feet, always able to switch queue if I start to feel I made a mistake. Self organisation, autonomy and lifetimes of experience always win out over a simple, mechanised, single queue where these agencies and abilities are taken away.

          • TimM says:

            @Dubious. I agree, the Post Office really is where you can witness and experience worst queuing behaviour. Because of the single line and because of the public announcement system, ‘Desk no. 8, please, come on down!’, people have been totally absolved of their personal queuing responsibilities and have lost their queuing skills. They are no longer character-profiling the people in front or spotting opportunities to switch queues and just accept to wait in line and let the reaction time of the person at the front slow them down every time along with the mean walking to the desk time. It grates.

          • Bagoly says:

            As Doug says, it depends on how you define efficiency, or perhaps optimal.
            Your definition seems to be minimising mean queueing time without considering variance of queueing time, or knock-on effects.
            Single queues minimise variance – as the example by Rhys and Doug illustrates.
            If variance has knock-on effects (E.g. average queue time 10 minutes, but 30 minutes causes missed flight and so 24 hour delay + other costs) single queueing is certainly more optimal.
            Even a missed glass of champagne is pretty annoying.

          • John says:

            My current post office has 4 counters and a single queue is more efficient, because they are all close to each other and the 4 counters are kind of in a circle.

            The previous post office I used had 8 counters and was very inefficient for the reasons already mentioned by Tim, particularly because some counters were hidden behind a pillar, the counters were all far from the queue head, etc

    • WaynedP says:


      Although most efficient way of queueing is always to avoid the one I’m standing in 🙂

    • Tim Hewson says:

      I don’t think that the objective is to reduce net queuing. It is about allowing the time spend standing in line to be spent sitting down (more comfortable for the customer) or spending money in a cafe (more profitable for the airport).

      Rob is right, to be appealing T5 needs more landside catering and seating. There is space to add these and maybe that is Heathrow’s plan if the trial works well. To make it a fairer trial it would make sense to set up some coffee wagons in the terminal as a temporary measure.

      To my mind this would be more useful on the security queue. Firstly, everyone needs to use that whereas some are travelling hand luggage only and don’t need to use a check-in desk. if I arrive at the airport with luggage the reason I will want to check in immediately is to get rid of my bag so I don’t have to lug it round and so I can get though security which is unpredictable.

    • SteveD says:

      TimM, I agree with you on the post office example from the point of view of the system. But from the viewpoint of the individual, they are paying a small time premium to eliminate the risk of being in the ‘wrong’ queue. The extra time taken by the slow customers (or cashiers) is spread out across everyone in the queue. That time premium is only caused by the extra time for customers to listen to the ‘free desk’ announcement and get in position.

      That itself could be reduced with someone directing traffic, as is the case for some airports. In my local airport most airlines use a single queue, multi-desk system. That single queue always looks dishearteningly long, but it’s always on the move. I much prefer this to the alternative of having to choose a queue, and then listen to MrsD muttering all the way down it that we should have chosen the one next door…

    • Mayfair Mike says:

      If the post office is the worst example of inefficiency, then you are effectively saying it’s super efficient 🤷‍♂️

  • John says:

    Rail e-tickets do not require an app. They are Aztec codes which can be shown as a screenshot on any device, in a PDF viewer, or even printed on paper (of any size). When a station barrier or train conductor scans them, these scans are sent to a database so that misuse could be detected

    This is similar to how airline boarding passes work.

    Tickets which are stored in an app are m-tickets (mobile). These are a scam because they are tied to your device, and you must activate them before travel because they can’t otherwise be marked as used. If your phone is stolen, so are your tickets, and you may get a criminal record because of the strict liability nature of railway byelaws.

  • kitten says:

    Wasn’t it Dishoom and a few other restaurants that were operating virtual queuing? Plus places in, like, Hong Kong?

    If trendy restaurant virtual queueing works then what’s the difference with BA?

    • Rob says:

      Franca Manca uses it.

    • ChrisW says:

      At restaurants like Dishoom you arrive when you can (i.e. depending on when you finish work), put your name down in the virtual queue and then head to a nearby pub or park to relax until your spot arrives.

      BA are asking you to tell them exactly when you will arrive at T5 and if you’re early you have to stand around waiting for your time. Presumably if you’re late you lose your spot.

      Not quite the same ; P

  • John says:

    I love how this article explains that the virtual queuing is “clearly a positive move,” before then explaining all the reasons it might not be! 😀

  • George K says:

    Would virtual queuing benefit status holders?

    • TimM says:

      Not many here will have had the pleasure of queuing in a Turkish bank. You insert your bank card to obtain access through the ‘airlock’ security doors and take a numbered ticket while in the compartment to open the second door. (A security card manually admit the poor innocent card-less).

      Each counter has a numeric display above it but the numbers do not run in sequence! Essentially the more money you have in your account the less time you need to wait. Sometimes I waited over an hour while new arrivals were served before me but when I had clients’ money in my account, I knew I would be usually the next person served. It sort of formalises the way that richer Turks expect never to have to queue anywhere. Those without accounts would usually give up it is was busy.

      Perhaps BA could trial a similar system based on Tier points? It would eliminate the need for dedicated Club/First/Status desks, make the operation more efficient and encourage loyalty on a per tier point basis rather than the overly course status 🙂

      • Doug M says:

        I had no idea of this, things like this provide an interesting take on everyday life in a particular place. Other than to get £1 coins or particular notes I don’t think I’ve been in a bank for 20+ years.

        • Bagoly says:

          When I went to Auschwitz many years ago, the charge for the left luggage was 1% of the value you declared!
          Clever in that the nominating party had incentives in opposite directions.

  • Dave Pearson says:

    As I am likely to be staying overnight at a hotel adjoined to the airport, I would happily book a slot, taking into account the transfer time from hotel to T5.

    • Chris Heyes says:

      Dave Pearson Why would you need a slot if your at the adjoining Hotel ? Sofitel
      We never queue outbound We always stop overnight at the Sofitel
      Around 6.30pm the night we arrive we check our luggage in and check-in
      Then off to the Sofitel Lounge
      Breakfast early morning then just walk to First/Business Security straight through (takes two min for partner explaining false hip setting alarm off lol)
      But literally takes 15min from leaving hotel to boarding plane
      (I time it its normally 12 min)
      Never use the Lounge on way out, except we will probably this Year as we have a 2,40pm flight normally our flights are between 8—10am
      Only time we couldn’t drop suitcases of was just after 9-11

      • Optimus Prime says:

        You may need a plan B if Sofitel keeps being used as a quarantine hotel.

        • Chris Heyes says:

          Optimus Prime, Been told that about Sofitel, but We are booked in Junior Suite ?
          Will cost them a lot to throw us out, we are very persistent we have already paid, that’s a contract as far as we are concerned

      • Doug M says:

        Chris, you’ve said this previously. Conformance at T5 is 35 minutes I think, given what the FW and other security channels can look like in the mornings you’re taking a huge risk, and if you are really walking on the plane 15 minutes after leaving the hotel you’re incredibly lucky with delays and the normal rubbish that accompanies airport experience. If you’re not leaving an A gate you must all be sprinting through the tunnels or have the shuttle held for you.

        • Chris Heyes says:

          Doug Yes I’ve said it before, if you’ve read my posts we always travel off peak
          Most times going through security there is no-one there at all so just walk through
          The most whilst we have gone through is a couple of Pilots/Steward/ess
          I’m Disabled as well (walking stick) so no sprinting occasionally disabled buggy waiting after security if far away, but mostly not needed or booked
          I can only say never held a flight up and always on before the plebs (Economy) start boarding.
          Works for us so what can i say, only queues we see are the normal security i smile as i can see them further down

          • Doug M says:

            Around 6AM FW can be really busy, and I thought was still quite busy between 8AM and 10AM, normal times assumed not C19. I’ve been in the FW, done an about turn and headed for Fast Track because I’ve guessed it would still be quicker, although you never really find out what the right choice was.
            Assuming you don’t use FW as if you don’t want the lounge its probably not the best route to the terminal.

  • WaynedP says:

    Underground, Heathrow Xpress or M4 …

    Those of us driving or being driven from Greater London outside of West London are at the mercy of the M25, which feels like an even bigger gamble than those already mentioned.

    Always prefer Gatwick.

    Although to be fair, bag drop off queues at Heathrow T5 have always worked efficiently for me. I find the bottle-neck arises at security. If and how this proposal, and how it’s implemented and used contributes to relieving security bottle-necks is what I would be interested to see.

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