The Cost of a Broken Button

Malaysia Airlines recently gave its online check-in process a cosmetic makeover. I can’t say it’s an improvement, but that’s my subjective opinion of course. What I can say objectively, however, is that they have made the user experience worse for at least some users – because the most important function, the ability to print your boarding pass, no longer works. They have broken the button.

You can check in online, but if you try to print your boarding pass on a Mac or iPad (and perhaps other platforms – I have only tried Apple OSes, albeit across various different devices and machines), nothing happens. Pre-makeover, the ‘Print Boarding Pass’ button used to load your boarding pass so you could see it, print it or save it as a PDF etc. Now – nothing. You have no choice but to queue up at the airport check-in desk.

When I first encountered this a few months ago, I assumed they’d soon fix it. When I encountered it again while checking in for my flight today, I wondered what it was costing them.

Now, I imagine only Malaysia Airlines would be able to work out an exact figure for that, but we can make some educated guesses. Hopefully my numbers below are at least in the right ballpark, but I accept they may not be accurate – but I’m more interested in illustrating the principle than arriving at an exact figure.

So… How much does it cost to run an airport check-in desk? I don’t know. But we do know that back in 2009 Ryanair reportedly scrapped all of its airport check-in desks for a saving of 50 million Euros (1). They carried 58.5 million passengers in the preceding year, so let’s say that airport check-in was costing them a little under 1 Euro per passenger. Ryanair’s cost-base is likely to be lower than Malaysia Airlines’ (cheaper airports, probably lower staff costs etc), and of course inflation may well have pushed costs up in the six years since then. So it’s probably more than 1 Euro.

SITA, who’s online check-in platform Malaysia Airlines uses, promises “estimated savings per self-service passenger of $4.79” and “confirmed customer savings per self-service passenger” of $1.25 to $2.50 for their Passenger iCheck product (2). Now, I don’t know whether that’s the exact product Malaysia Airlines is using, but it gives an idea of the sort of numbers on the table.

For the sake of a nice round – and possibly conservative – figure, and a back-of-the-envelope answer to my original question, let’s call it £1 per passenger.

Malaysia Airlines apparently carried 16 million passengers in 2014 (3), so that would suggest their airport check-in operations might cost around £16 million a year. I have no idea how close to the real figure that actually is (it intuitively feels low), but let’s run with it for now.

So the next question is, how many of those passengers checked in online and tried to print their own boarding passes? Well, we know that the trend across the whole industry is in that direction. We know that Malaysia Airlines is pushing its customers towards self-service check-in, which is now mandatory for most economy passengers at least (4). We know from SITA’s 2014 Airline IT Trends Survey that web check-ins range from 2% to 83% across airlines (5). We know that back in 2013 EasyJet reported that on some days as many as 88% of their customers check in online (6). Of course, Malaysia Airlines’ passenger demographic may well be different and the proportion may be lower than average. Or higher. But let’s go down the middle and call it 40% for now.

So how many of those are Mac / iOS users? Well, we know that these platforms account for just over 16% of web clients (7), so let’s go with that as a rough estimate.

Let’s calculate that out:

16 million passengers per year….
6.4 million (40%) checking in online….
Just over 1 million (16%) failing to print their boarding cards…
1 million extra people queuing at airport check-in desks…
Costing £1 each…
Obviously that’s £1 million per year. At least.

Okay, that’s perhaps not a huge amount in the grand scheme of running an airline, but that will continue (and probably grow) until they fix the problem. Which has been there for well over a month now.

Put it another way, that’s roughly £85,000 of unnecessary cost – or missed savings, depending on how you look at it – every single month.

Or around £2,800 per day.

All because of one broken button.

I wonder how long it would take to fix? A few hours maybe?

Now, granted I’ve made a lot of assumptions in my figures, and my research has comprised all of half an hour on Google. I daresay there’s better data out there somewhere. And perhaps the problem doesn’t apply to all Mac / iOS devices. Or perhaps it applies to more – maybe Android users encounter it too. I don’t know. Perhaps it’s just me! Although I doubt it, because I’ve tried across quite a few devices and I’ve looked at the JavaScript* code behind the button. I do know it works on Windows at least (Windows only accounts for 50% of web clients though).

I should also point out that the fault may not necessarily be Malaysia Airlines’. They are using a SITA product, so perhaps the problem lies there (in which case it may be affecting other airlines, so the cost impact would presumably be far higher). Or perhaps Malaysia Airlines have customized their version of it and broken it as a result. Perhaps there are IT issues behind the scenes that make fixing it much harder than one might expect. But ultimately, that’s no excuse. As passengers, we don’t care where the blame lies or what difficulties there might be in fixing it. We just want it to work.

Regardless of the actual figures, my point is that a simple piece of broken code – probably broken unwittingly but not then tested sufficiently thoroughly – has degraded a critical part of the airline user experience, and is costing money – and will continue to do so until it gets fixed.

But it’s not even just about the cash. A poor experience annoys customers. In this case it is preventing us from completing our task, and causing us inconvenience because we will have to finish it at the airport – one more queue we could have avoided. That button has been broken for some time now – that gives the impression that Malaysia Airlines doesn’t care. And that in turn impacts on goodwill, undermining all the hard work Malaysia Airlines is putting in to repair its badly damaged brand. What price goodwill?

All because of one broken button.

Come on guys, fix it.

*I have to admit I don’t really understand why this button needs JavaScript. It doesn’t work without it (you get an error message telling you to see an agent at the airport – so much for graceful degradation). A bog-standard HTML form submit would do the job of retrieving the boarding pass and displaying it, in a new window if desired (although there is an argument that this should be the user’s decision). If I remember correctly, clicking the button on Windows both displays the boarding pass and opens the print dialog; I would argue that, for the sake of an extra click, that second step isn’t really necessary – if the user has managed to fire up their device, launch a web browser, navigate to Malaysia Airlines’ web site, and complete the online check-in process, I would have thought they’re perfectly capable of manually printing the page. Let them decide how and when to print (or save) their boarding pass. This feels like over-engineering for no apparent benefit.

Update – 17th September

I had the opportunity today to try online check-in on an Android tablet. The button does at least do something this time – it downloads your boarding pass to the tablet’s local storage. Not that you’d know, unless you happened to catch the brief ‘Downloading…’ message that appeared for about one second – the actual boarding pass wasn’t displayed, but it was there on the tablet one I’d gone and found it. Of course, ‘Print Boarding Pass’ is not an appropriate label for the button in that case… ;-)


About Jonathan Hirsch

I've been working in the interactive media industry since 1995. I'm a problem-solver with a multi-disciplinary skill set. I work on a freelance / contract basis. I help clients create great digital products.

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