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British Airways tests eliminating online check-in

It’s a familiar process to most air travelers by now: Watch the clock before your trip and log on to a computer within 24 hours of your flight to check in online.

But even that simple routine, which has been a huge improvement over the previous tradition of standing in a long queue at the airport, might go away in the future — something industry watchers say isn’t necessarily a plus.

British Airways is testing a new service that will automatically check in passengers before their flights. Selected travelers flying out of airports in France this month are getting the option of being automatically checked in a day before their flight, assigned a seat and sent an electronic boarding pass.

“Customers have so much to think about prior to a trip, be that finishing up in the office or getting the kids’ suitcases packed. We’re aiming to give them one less thing to think about,” said Frank van der Post, the airline’s managing director of brands and customer experience, in a statement.

“They just need to drop off any bags and make their way to the plane.”

The carrier assures that passengers will always be able to choose whether or not to use automated check-in, and get a chance to change their seat assignment if they’re not happy with the one they’re given during the process. Travelers may eventually be able to store their seat preferences in the system to boost their chances of sitting where they want to.

But while British Airways is touting the new service as a time-saving measure, an airline observer was skeptical whether it could be called a perk.

“Many airlines have recently started charging a fee for confirmed seat assignments at booking ... then subsequently releasing ‘free’ seats at the 24-hour check-in mark, causing an avalanche of cranky customers digitally arm wrestling for the remaining scraps of aisle and window seats,” said Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com.

“It appears BA is trying to automate this contrived process.”

Seaney noted that carriers including United and Delta hold back a portion of the most desirable seats for those willing to pay extra, elite-status passengers or passengers paying with branded credit cards. They then release or automatically assign “leftovers” untaken at check-in time, he said.

“What passengers really want is to confirm their seats at the time of booking — without a fee,” Seaney said.

British Airways also allows passengers to choose their seats for free within 24 hours of departure, though it notes that the “choice may be limited.” Reserving a specific seat farther in advance may cost extra, depending on your status with the carrier, ticket type and other factors.

The airline plans to extend the automated check-in trial to a larger group of travelers in the spring. If the testing is a success, the carrier plans to make it an option for all of its passengers by the end of 2013.

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