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I travel by plane on average 3-4 times per month, mainly in Europe. One thing I have noticed is that despite the advantages offered by electronic passport gates, on almost every occasion and at almost every airport I have visited, a significant number of the machines (often around half) are out of use and displaying a red X. In many cases this is in spite of the fact that there are huge queues both at the electronic gates and the manned gates.

Why is this the case? These machines are fully automated, and passengers who are unable to successfully get through them are diverted to a manned gate anyway, so it is hard to see how it could be related to a staffing issue. I also find it hard to believe that it could be due to faults - surely the machines are not that unreliable, and typically the ones that are out of use are all in a row.

If there is some legitimate reason, then why install more gates than are going to be used in practice?

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    A very good question! – Hanky Panky Sep 19 at 13:52
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    I guess someone has to monitor an automatic gate in operation (to e.g. spot passengers having trouble getting through), so some staffing could probably be saved. Maybe they use less power when out of operation? – Henrik Sep 19 at 13:53
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    At least in the UK, there's still an officer monitoring the automated gates, perhaps one officer per every four gates. For that reason I'd guess that dynamically adjusting the number of gates according to demand wouldn't be entirely trivial, so the number of open gates will be set to handle the average demand. Queues will then form in times of peak demand. – TooTea Sep 19 at 13:59
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    @TooTea An analogy would be supermarket checkout lines where basically the same thing occurs. – Peter M Sep 19 at 14:03
  • @PeterM Right, that analogy came to my mind about ten seconds after posting my previous comment. :-) – TooTea Sep 19 at 14:32
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As mentioned in the comments these gates have to be manned so there may not be enough officers:

At least in the UK, there's still an officer monitoring the automated gates, perhaps one officer per every four gates. For that reason I'd guess that dynamically adjusting the number of gates according to demand wouldn't be entirely trivial, so the number of open gates will be set to handle the average demand. Queues will then form in times of peak demand.

Other reasons could include:

  • Some of the gates are faulty

  • Not sure if this has anything to do with this but the UK has allowed several new countries to use the passport gates, see here

  • Security reasons, so all the gates can be closely monitored

  • Crowd control, so the luggage reclaim and customs aren't crowded, also for security reasons

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