Face-up or face-down - does it matter how your ticket’s barcode is read?
An opinion piece written for Passenger Terminal Today
Reading, UK, June 2009 – Let’s face it, at first glance this may seem to be a very boring question. But when you’re at the end of a 250-person queue, waiting to board your next inter-continental flight, the rate at which that queue shrinks suddenly becomes one of the more important questions in your life, at least for a time. Whether your ticket is read face-up or face-down by the scanner at the gate has a significant impact on how long you’re kept waiting to board, and it’s one of those issues where conventional wisdom conforms to the old adage - “it’s always conventional but rarely wisdom!”
Barcodes printed on different sizes and shapes of paper or card are now presented at check-in desks, security points, retail outlets, and boarding gates. There have also been successful trials to present them on mobile phones and personal digital organisers (PDAs), a trend that may grow.
This variety of media makes it much more difficult for those operating scanners to ensure that barcodes are properly positioned and scanned quickly and accurately at the first pass. Conventional wisdom might suggest that placing a document face-down on a flatbed scanner would be something every one of us is familiar with, from experience at the office or at home. This is true, but rarely, if ever, are we trying to scan at high speed 250 times in succession. Airport trials have shown that face-down scanning is more complicated for agents, firstly because passengers nearly always hand over documents with the barcode facing up, so every one has to be turned over, thereby adding small delay each time, and secondly because agents are unable to see the exact location of the barcode on the document once it is turned over. This means that it’s harder to get the barcode read at the first attempt. Trials by US carriers have also identified cases of wrist and arm fatigue experienced by agents using face-down scanners.
The susceptibility of the scanner bed to glare from overhead lights just compounds the problem and, over time, the bed accumulates scratches, traces of adhesive, ink from recently printed passes, and airborne debris – adding to scanning errors. As more mobile devices – phones and PDAs –begin to carry barcodes – the problem just gets worse. It’s even more difficult to position the barcode when you can’t see it, and there’s no way of knowing if the screen has changed once you turn over the device. With capacitive touch buttons, like those on the iPhone®, being used more frequently on such devices, it is very likely that placing them on a flatbed scanner will cause false triggering of touch keys – so anything could be on the device screen by the time it's scanned.
The answer, of course, is to scan documents and mobile devices face up. The scanner faces down and projects a beam of light onto the document. It’s then easy for agents, and even untrained users and passengers, to see the exact location of the barcode and confirm that it’s within the illuminated scanning area. Because the scanning surface is protected from above within a hood, there are no problems with glare to compromise data capture. Also the scanner surface is physically separated from the media that it’s scanning, so there’s no damage inflicted and no build-up of contaminants.
To date, many airports throughout the world have gone over to face-up scanning to achieve faster passenger processing and boarding. When conventional wisdom is replaced by common sense, most others will follow.