Home Airports Why Do They Still Use Dot Matrix Printers At Airports?

Why Do They Still Use Dot Matrix Printers At Airports?

by joeheg

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.

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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:

Technology

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!

Cost

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.

Regulations

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.

Final Thoughts

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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14 comments

31,000 Singapore Airlines Mile Bonus - View from the Wing January 31, 2020 - 2:36 pm

[…] Explanations for why airlines still use dot matrix printers at airports […]

Reply
bob February 1, 2020 - 9:08 am

For carbon copies??

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Dave O January 31, 2020 - 8:22 pm

Yeah, there was a time when things were simply toss aside and replaced with the latest and greatest fad item unless there was a real ROI in doing so. These days it’s 3 year life span at most then out, unless it’s smart phones then it’s every year……..

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john February 2, 2020 - 3:16 am

While yes we can use the carbon paper option for these, no one does. If we need a signed copy of a release there are just two copies printed and we sign one then keep the other. One big reason we keep them, because of the no staple thing. All the paper is kept in one continuous loop and it’s easier to find what we’re looking for. Nothing gets lots.
The big big reason why??? Because everyone is slowly moving to digital releases and soon we won’t print anything. No need to upgrade systems that will no longer be needed in a few years.

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k June 2, 2021 - 1:45 pm

ACARS communications from plane to ground operate at 2400 baud.

Reply
George Volling June 13, 2022 - 9:33 pm

Noise from a dot matrix printer is nothing compared to the old Teletype machines of yore!
Still, agree with the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it ‘ concept. Ca

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Carl WV June 13, 2022 - 11:00 pm

This brought back memories. Many decades back the company I then worked for was on dot matrix printers, With a good amount of effort and experimentation I was able to convert over to laser. It was a new thing then. If I could handle the coding and printer driver work I would think they would be able to do the same.

In our case using dot matrix required expensive pre-printed forms (for the appearance of customer invoices, etc.), rather than plain paper. With the laser printer printing all the form acceptably on plain paper Because of that the project quickly paid for itself. If it had been just plain green-bar or the like it would have been way less savings (if any).

I do agree dot matrix reports for reports were easier to leaf through and you didn’t have to worry about getting pages out of order.

Reply
Andrew Saulnier June 16, 2022 - 8:57 pm

They use carbonless duplicate or triplicate paper. And dot matrix printer today are much more expensive than laser printer.

Reply
kwh191 June 17, 2022 - 12:28 am

The real answer is airlines bought a 39 year supply of tractor feed paper! Once it’s depleted other options will be considered.

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Richard Davis June 17, 2022 - 5:38 am

We use this to print the flight release. The captain has a digital copy but the FAA still requires a hard copy. We also print out an updated weather report which the captain also has a digital copy of.

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Standby Pax June 17, 2022 - 1:04 pm

As a standby passenger…. When you hear that sounds of the dot matrix printer… there’s a good chance you didn’t make that flight. Haha

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Kyle June 17, 2022 - 2:18 pm

NOPE, I’m an airline pilot and those printers are kept for my 50′ of paperwork that need to be printed on a continuous sheet because I need to separate it at about 4 places each flight and where it separates changes. If it were done by standard 8 1/2 by 11 sheets then where I would rip the paper might be resulting me in several slivers of full sheets. This ensures tidiness, consistency, standardization, and precision with where I’m having to separate.

Reply
Doodle June 17, 2022 - 6:17 pm

Sorry man but this article is pretty terribly researched. Summary… Here are random people’s opinions and my feelings on it, but I didn’t bother to reach out to an airline to ask or actually find out… Enjoy!

Reply
JohnB June 19, 2022 - 2:27 pm

Having worked for an airline, it is just attrition. When it wears out, it gets replaced. In some instances, the continuous form is beneficial, but overall 8.5×11 is just fine. I want to know why airlines are still using thermal paper? Boarding passes do not need to have a shelf life, but tickets printed on that thermal paper stock do fade. Even worse leave one in a hot car, and watch the ticket turn totally black.

Reply

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