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There was a time when queues at post offices and banks etc were counter-specific. Eventually it was widely recognised that a penning system (a Single-Line queue), or ticketing systems and such like, feeding all counters offered efficiencies.

Check in counters at airports are sometimes run with penning systems or the equivalent, but only ever in my experience by a specific airline or that airline plus some affiliates. That often leaves long periods on some days where scores of counters are unmanned and with nobody waiting, while other areas may be heavily crowded with people waiting to check-in at a handful of counters. It is unlikely that all the counters would be in use at any one time given the number of passengers in a short time interval that would imply and the limitations of other facilities at the airport (Security, ground-handling tugs etc).

Edit This last is my misconception. See @Tom’s answer – at peak times all counters are used. (Subject to @SpaceDog's proviso re new airports.)

According to some “The airline industry, in its history, has never made money.” and though that is disputed, the industry is clearly very sensitive to costs eg. With that in mind, many airlines subcontract ground handling to airport owners, handling agents or even other airlines. More than 50% of the ground handling is outsourced where ground-handling includes check-in counter services for departing PAX.

Except perhaps for El Al Israel Airlines, the procedures for checking-in at any one airport (eg whether the exit fee, if any, has been paid) are similar for all international flights from that airport. The available technology (eg baggage handling) is the same and apparently staff may switch between counters (almost?) regardless of airline. So check-in services are a commodity with little differentiation other than the badge on the clerk or the banner behind the counter.

It is only curiosity (or perhaps something to do with?) but why are we wasting valuable real-estate by leaving it idle for quite long periods – and consequently causing passengers to queue longer than otherwise and presumably, somewhere down the line, charging them for the ‘privilege’?

I’m guessing there is some technical reason, rather than merely a failure to agree commercial terms for a centralised service. Staff training is perhaps the most likely but does not convince me at present. I appreciate that shorter queues might not reduce the time between my arrival at the airport and my boarding my aircraft, but if it must be spent I'd rather do so in a Lounge.

  • Countries that have public long distance bus (or train) transport systems have typically (somewhat) optimized the check in system. When long distance transport is privately run, each company will have its own counter and runs its own check in. I'd suspect that what you're describing is a feature of the model. Think about it: If I'm paying to fly on a five star airline, I don't want to queue up with the rabble who're flying a budget airline. – MastaBaba Oct 1 '14 at 23:10
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Check in counter and aircraft parking gates at airports are usually provided in as copious quantity as is possible for the space. This allows for maximum usage during peak arrival/departing times slots and allows space for expansion in terms of number of flights/airlines serving the airport.

Airlines that make frequent flights to an airport tend to have specific gates and counters assigned to them. Airlines that make only one or two flights often share a gate and counter.

Airlines like consistency for their regular customers, so at XYZ airport, their frequent flyers would know to always go to counter 24-29 and their flight crew will know that likely they will be parking at B concourse.

At airports where the ground staff are contracted through the airport, specific workers handle specific airlines. While the check in procedures are similar, each airline has it own in house rules for dealing with Elite flyers, baggage, upgrades, etc. And it would be tough for each contract worker to know every airline's rules (and time consuming for them to look it all up).

While there are times when the airport seems empty, there will also be times when every parking gate will be full and every check in counter buzzing with activity. And because airline scheduling is dependent on many factors other than airport slots, the airport managers can not really force airlines to fly in at times that make better use of the counter space.

  • Yeah, in newer airports you don't see it as often because the extra space is there for future expansion (airports tend to last a long time and have plans stretching out years or decades). I've definitely seen older aiports and terminals very busy at peak times. – SpaceDog Oct 2 '14 at 2:01
  • pnuts has been lucky, even at new airports there can be banks that max out the capacity. – user13044 Oct 2 '14 at 3:51
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    @pnuts For large international airports, I would say that the rule variations between airlines probably actually is insurmountable if someone flying on any airline could just go up to any counter. When you have several dozen different airlines with vastly different procedures, I would say it quickly becomes unreasonable to expect all of the check-in agents to be able to deal with the rules of each airline. Also, not all airlines do actually farm out their check-in agents. Some of them prefer to have their level of service of their agents as a differentiating factor from other airlines. – reirab Oct 15 '14 at 16:17
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    @pnuts It's not just normal check-in procedures that they'd have to deal with, though. They'd have to deal with seat assignment, upgrades, ticket changes/rebooking, frequent flier program policies, etc. Change and cancellation policies, for instance, vary dramatically between airlines (and even different fare classes on the same airline.) Frequent flier program policies vary substantially between different airlines, too. – reirab Oct 15 '14 at 16:44
  • Also mind the technology change - most airpots were planned and built before self-service check-in terminals reduced the amount of counters needed. – johannes Sep 23 '15 at 23:29
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Note: this answer is a bit speculative, based on general economic principles rather than any specific knowledge about the airline industry.

But I think your question may be based on the sunk cost fallacy.

My understanding is that counter space is allocated to airlines as part of their lease agreements with the airport, and that these are fairly long-term agreements (several years). So the airline has already paid for the counter space whether it uses it or not. "Wasting" that real estate on any given day doesn't actually cost them anything.

However, paying hourly employees to staff counters that they don't really need definitely costs them money.

Hence, the airline has a clear incentive to staff only as many counters as they need to provide whatever level of customer service they consider adequate - certainly no more than that.

You might ask why they don't raise their customer service targets and staff more counters for that reason. Presumably they have decided that would not generate enough extra revenue to offset the costs. I think evidence within the industry tends to suggest that customers are far more sensitive to fares than to customer service - so even if one airline had shorter lines than their competitors, it might not win them a significant amount of extra business, or enough customer preference to allow them to raise their fares above their competitors.

You might ask why, if an airline rarely staffs all its counters, why it would pay to lease so many. I suspect that counter real estate may not be as "valuable" as you think. Empirical observation suggests that airports have many more counters than airlines actually want to use, so supply and demand would suggest that they should be relatively cheap to the airline. Hence the airline may be able to secure a large number of counters at relatively low extra cost. That cost may be justified just for the rare occasions when they are all needed (e.g. holidays and other peak travel times), and at other times they will simply sit idle because, as above, it is not worth the cost of staffing them.

You might ask why, if counters are such low-value real estate, why airports build them with so many. I would guess this is because most of them were built quite some time ago, when airline customer service levels were higher. For instance, the newest major airport in the US is 20 years old this year.

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It's not that they are idle per say, they actually fill up and get busy quite often when there is a flight that is ready to take off. The thing with airlines is that they are busy around the time flights are leaving, and like any other business, they have busy times and slower times. Airlines often use queue systems, mainly stanchions and retractable belt barriers are used to create the waiting lines.

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