If you’ve ever been sitting or standing near an airport gate before a flight, there’s a good chance that you’ve heard a printer that’s spewing out seemingly infinite amounts of paper. I know there might be some of you reading this who have never seen one of these before. That device is a dot matrix printer. Way back before we all had laser printers, the majority of work was done with these ancient machines.
Paper is fed by a tractor system, meaning the pages’ sides have perforated edges that align with spokes that keep the paper moving. After you’re done printing, you tear off these edges, leaving you with something looking like this.
The printing is done by a head that moves across the page from one side to the other. Using a series of “pins” and an ink ribbon, you slowly but surely get your printed document.
Well, unless the paper is misaligned and the sprockets miss the holes, but let us try to forget that if we can.
This technology is decades old, so why do they still use it at the airport?
I’ve found many instances of people asking this question online, but there doesn’t seem to be a single definitive answer.
Here are some of the most common explanations:
The reservation systems and other systems that run the airport are controlled by programs written for mainframe computers. These programs are written in computer languages that haven’t been used for decades, back when no one had even heard of a laser printer, USB, WiFi or “the cloud.” To make these legacy systems talk to laser printers would be amazingly challenging and labor-intensive.
I even read that in outstations, the data is relayed from the airline to the gate via a 9600 baud phone modem because there are no cable or satellite connections to get information there any other way. I have no way to confirm this, but if it’s true, DAMN!
Dot matrix printers are cheaper to operate than laser printers. Ink ribbons are much less expensive than toner cartridges. They break down less frequently, so they require fewer maintenance calls.
Going back to the first point, these printers are already installed. They work for what they’re needed to do and replacing them would be an investment in hardware (new printers), programmers (to write the new code so they’ll work with the old systems), and labor (installation and maintenance).
Why spend all of that money to fix a problem that doesn’t exist?
Functionality & Dependability
Dot-matrix printers are reliable. Even when they break, it’s not catastrophic. There’s no paper getting stuck, requiring you to take the printer apart, like with a laser printer. When a dot matrix printer is running of ink on the ribbon, it’s a gradual process. You don’t have a printer that refuses to print because the counter on the cartridge has reached zero.
With a dot matrix printer, you have an (almost) endless paper length. Need to print five pages of a passenger manifest? No problem. There’s also no need for staples to keep those pages together as dot matrix paper isn’t fed by individual sheets.
One of the more interesting points brought up was that the reason airports use dot matrix printers is the same reason they still use them when you’re buying a car. Some documents need to be produced with multiple copies. Dot matrix printers can use “carbon” paper (read: triplicate paper), which will print several copies of a document.
If there’s a form that the captain of the plane has to sign for the local authorities, with one copy to be kept by the airline on the ground and yet one for the plane, a dot matrix printer can handle that task. Not so for a laser printer.
Until laws and regulations are changed worldwide, allowing digital documentation, this seems to make the most sense of why dot matrix printers exist.
I do feel a bit nostalgic when I hear those printers at the airport. I spent hours at home printing out baseball stats and bowling score sheets (which were in triplicate). I also printed most of my papers for school on a dot matrix, until laser printers became more affordable.
I also remember that when I started my “real” job I had to work with one of those printers running almost non-stop in my ear all day long. All while I was expected to work and be friendly to customers. I don’t miss trying to talk on the phone when one of those printers was running at full speed.
When it comes to the reason why dot matrix printers are still in use at airports, I will bet it’s a combination of all of the reasons mentioned above. They work, they’re affordable, replacing them would be expensive, and they might even be necessary under current laws.
I wouldn’t expect that buzzing sound from these printers to disappear from the airports any time soon.
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