How El-Al’s online check-in worked in real life

In my previous post I mentioned trying El-Al’s new system of online check-in through the Internet before reaching the airport, the few problems they had with the procedure, and some of the expected benefits.

Now I’ve actually taken the flight, and got to experience the results in the airport. The short version is that they get lots of points on intent, but still fail miserably on execution.

The first, and most direct, benefit was supposed to be the ability to skip the regular check-in lines. Since people who went through the online procedures already made their seating/food/etc selection, they can use a quicker queue to only send the luggage. That’s the theory anyway.

The printed check-in paper had a note stating we need to go to a specific check-in desk (number 78 in this case) instead of the regular check-in desks used for the flight.

But the big electronic billboard in the airport, listing the gates for flights, included gate 78 as well. It was right up there on a listing of “All flights” together with a few more general desks. Meaning that we all went to that line, but regular passengers for regular check-in did so as well.

In my case, for a example, two people in front of me were this older woman who seemed to have lots and lots of problems, and a younger relative who seemed to have lots of issues of his own. Our line actually became the longest queue at some point, because the few people from online check-in all went there, but other people could distribute themselves based on queue length.

One woman behind me on the line even complained quite loudly that she could have saved time by not doing the online check-in. And the sad thing is that she was right.

A couple right behind me were there for regular check-in. People tried telling them that this is a line for people who only did the online check-in, but they pointed to the large electronic billboard, and said that this line is good for them as well. And the sad thing is that they were right as well.

What’s worse, at some point the woman working at that desk started to almost cry to a supervisor that she’s also taking regular people, and she can’t hold under all that pressure, and that the queue is getting too long, and they have to do something. I would have felt really sorry for her if I weren’t so busy being one of the people annoyed at having to wait so long in the queue that was supposed to be the fastest.

Eventually the came up with a temporary solution. They managed to find another clerk to open another desk, and someone arrived to tell us that all the people who did the electronic check-in should go to desk 75 now.

This was of course a temporary solution, since all the people who didn’t arrive yet would all still come to desk 78. In the future they should probably just have a different listing for it on the billboard, which they can change in real time. They can’t change printed paper, though.

Another point of confusion was that they also recently started with the idea of E-Tickets. Plane tickets that you can print from their site. Which are an entirely different thing from the boarding pass you can print during the online check-in. Except that, naturally, it doesn’t feel that different to people. There were a few who figured that since they printed their tickets online, then they did their online check-in.

We moved to desk 75, and gave our luggage to the person operating it. And they gave us a real boarding pass instead of the one printed online. They also verified with us again the seating arrangements and the other details. Which is to say, the procedure took about the same exact time as a regular check-in, since we went through the exact same procedure.

Well, not entirely. This was longer. Because of the other benefits that online check-in had, the coupons for a free coffee and a discount at one of the stores. They said that they had to give us a coupon for the coffee.

Actually, they asked each and every one of us if we printed the coupon during the check-in, and each and every passenger told them that the printed document did not include a coupon. So we were directed to desk 77 to take a coupon for the coffee.

The woman there again asked if I didn’t already had a coupon. At that point I thought maybe the reason for me was that I did it by phone, and the support tech didn’t fax it to me. And that there were other technical problems preventing it being printed for all the other passengers near me. What I didn’t know and, much worse, the El-Al people there didn’t know was that these coupons were not offered for printing at all.

I was given a coupon for a free coffee, and went on. I didn’t realize how clueless they all were, so I didn’t think to ask them for a coupon about the 25$ discount at the duty-free sports shop. I assumed that they know their procedure, that the coffee requires a coupon (since it’s hard to track) but that the discount will be given by presenting the printed boarding pass which we all still have. Since they didn’t mention it, but were sure to mention the coffee coupon, this was a reasonable assumption. Reasonable, but wrong.

But let’s stick to the coffee for now, before getting back to it. The coupon was for a free coffee at the Arcaffe stand in the duty-free area.

The duty free in the new terminal in the Ben-Gurion airport has a central area containing most of the duty-free shops, and a few concourses radiating from it into the gates. Arcaffe has a stand in the central area, so I reached there, and showed them my coupon. And the man there told me that the coupon only applies to the second stand they have on concourse D.

Not that big a problem, since it’s not a long walk (and in that particular case near the gate I’ll have to take anyway), but somewhat annoying. They’re the same network, and should be selling about the same thing, so I can’t see the sense in the separation. Plus, this was not listed on the coupon page.

Oh, and if you took a look at that map, notice that the Ben-Gurion airport site has managed to misspell Arcaffe in English. I just saw that, and I must say I’m not impressed.

Later on I went to the Arcaffe location on the D concourse, showed them the coupon, and asked what it included. I expected that, as this is a deal/coupon, it will basically be a small cup of a regular coffee, or somesuch.

So I was pleasantly surprised. The employee at the shop told me that it covered all the various kinds of coffees they have. And it covered both the smaller sizes and the larger sizes.

The cost difference to them is of course much smaller than the cost difference on the menu presented to customers, so being consumer-friendly like that is a smart move, and one that I liked. Since it’s a deal with El-Al however, I wonder based on what price are they charging El-Al. It has to be a fixed price per coupon…

So this one benefit turned rather very well. Now back to the sports store, which turned out not to be quite as simple.

I went to check the store. Now, the deal there was a 25$ discount for any purchase above 100$. Meaning that the coupon is only useful if I actually find something there that I want to buy in those amount.

The store contained sports gear (mostly clothing and such), and shoes. Actually it looked a lot more like a shoe store than a sports store.

I didn’t need any of their sport gear, but I did manage to find a very nice pair of New Balance shoes which were comfortable and looked good. And since I can actually use another pair of shoes, that was alright. They cost 109$ (Which is the same as the retail price in the US, so is cheaper than the retail price in Israel), which made them a relative bargain at 84$ after the discount.

I reached the checkout counter, told the clerk there that I did El-Al’s online check-in so deserve a discount, and showed her the printed (and faxed) boarding pass.

She asked for a coupon (You guessed that was coming by now, right?).

I told her I was not given a coupon, and was not told that there’s a coupon. I asked if the printed boarding pass isn’t enough as a proof that I did the online check-in. She called a supervisor to ask, and gave the reply that they get the money back from El-Al on the coupons, so as far as they’re concerned the coupons are like money during the purchase, and they can’t go on without it.

Very annoying, and something I did not expect. Though maybe, given the state of confusion in other aspects of this check-in experience, I should have. So I asked her to keep the shoes at the counter, and went to find someone from El-Al who could give me my coupon.

I went to the information desk, and the guy there said El-Al has a lounge (King David’s Lounge, intended for first-class and business class passengers) with El-Al’s people there which I can try and talk to. I went there, and the woman at the counter sent me one further door outside to their Passenger’s Support counter.

In I went, and was greeted by a young man working there (called Yehuda, or Yoav, or somesuch. I asked him later, but forgot to write it down, and the name got a little fuzzy in my memorry). I said that I didn’t get my coupon/voucher for the 25$ at the sports store, and he looked at me quizzically and asked what I was talking about.

Turns out that this El-Al employee, which they placed there for passenger support, was not even notified about their online check-in procedure. Not only did he not know about the coupons, he wasn’t even aware they had online check-in. At all. This is a major screw-up from El-Al’s side.

I explained to him about it, and showed him the printed boarding pass, and the page saying that doing the online check-in should entitle me to that discount. He checked for some things on his computer, apparently didn’t find anything useful, and called a supervisor.

Now, the coffee coupon was a pretty simple thing. Could have been easily reproduced by a home printer, and looked like it has been photocopied. So I expected they’ll just tell him to print a copy of the coupon at his station, and that would be it. No such luck. It requires an “original” coupon (which turned out to be of the same simple-print and photocopied quality. of course).

And they didn’t have them in any location inside the duty free. They had to send a stewardess in from outside with it. Meaning that she’ll have to go through all the security check points, and whatever else people have to do to get into the terminal. Not a quick process.

Not quick at all, actually. It took over 25 minutes. He told me it would take a while, so I went to do other things in the terminal. But his time estimates were way off, at about 10-15 minutes, so when I came back to ask what’s going on (He did take my phone number and said he’d call me, but I decided to go back and check in person) he still didn’t have anything.

Because of the long delay, and the fact that my boarding pass was closing, he went with me back to the store, and tried to ask the saleswoman at the counter if she’ll accept his personal guarantee as an El-Al employee that he’ll give her the coupon later. He showed her his ID and everything. But, as we expected, she said she couldn’t and will require an actual physical coupon.

Eventually a stewardess came rushing in. carrying a huge pile of pages with the coupons. He took one, wrote my details on it, handed the page to me, and that was that.

At that point there were a few other El-Al employees in the Passenger Support area. They asked what that was about, and he explained it to them. They too never heard that El-Al had this online check-in option.

All in all I’d say that this could be a good thing, but they really have to pay more attention to their procedure, and iron out all the kinks. The guy at the support counter was extremely nice and tried to help, but the overall experience has been extremely amateurish and disorganized…

In this series (El-Al online check-in):

  1. Offline online check-in
  2. How El-Al’s online check-in worked in real life

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