The Luddite: Dot Matrix Printers

Sometimes the old tech is the best tech.

Having recently travelled through too many airports and suffered the depressing indignity of air travel these days (don’t get me started), I had plenty of downtime whiling the hours away at airport gates to find an answer to a question about airports that’s been bothering me for quite some time: Why do the airlines still use those old fashioned dot matrix printers at the gates? The ones where tiny pins smack a ribbon and create letters and numbers in a matrix form. Popular circa 1983.

Here’s what I mean. If you look behind any airport counter, you’ll see these printers—maybe even an old Epson 80—clacking away and spewing out reams of ancient dot matrix paper. Some of it comes off as a long roll, like giant toilet tissue. The more expensive kind, the long continuous ribbon of paper, fan-folds itself up as it streams out of the printer. We of a certain age have all been there, done that, and have moved on to the laser printer and then the inkjet.

But why are the airlines luddites here? Why do they continue to use these old clackers? Why have they not moved to laser or ink jet? What do they know, that I don’t?

Pointing to a clipboard holding a jumble of the old paper, I asked an airliine flight attendant why the romance with the old style. He smiled, looked around a bit, and in a motion best described as rubbing his thumb agains his forefinger, he silently mouthed the word “money.” Too cheap, he said, to upgrade.

I’m not one to argue with an employee who knows the indside dirt more than I. But after observing how pilots and desk and flight attendants wrestle with the pulp, I’ve concluded that it may not be only about the money. Just watch how much paperwork is involved with each flight, and you’ll agree these printers are the right tools for the right job.

There’s an advantage to having the paper emerge in a long sheet rather than individual pages. Each airport gate is really a desk, a tiny office, where the employees come and go. The amount of paperwork that prints out for each of those flights is mind boggling. And all that paper is handled by the pilots, the attendants, the gate folks, yada yada. Imagine if they were all single sheets. What a mess that could drop and fly away (pun sort of intended). Plus when you’re in that last minute rush to board, it’s much easier to fold up that roll of paper and stuff it willy-nilly into a clipboard. If you don’t get it aligned perfectly, it ain’t going anywhere. Worst that can happen is that one end droops down a bit.

Am I right about this? Not sure. I’m not going to spend much time moving up the airline p.r. ladder seeking an answer. Maybe it’s cost. Maybe it’s not. This is how I look at it: Sometimes the old tech is still the best tech.

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About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science Friday. His green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.