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The dot matrix printer cannot be defeated, at least in some respects. SkillGt/Getty Images Plus
I've Always Wondered ...

Why do airlines still use dot matrix printers?

Janet Nguyen Apr 12, 2024
The dot matrix printer cannot be defeated, at least in some respects. SkillGt/Getty Images Plus

This is just one of the stories from our “I’ve Always Wondered” series, where we tackle all of your questions about the world of business, no matter how big or small. Ever wondered if recycling is worth it? Or how store brands stack up against name brands? Check out more from the series here.

Listener and reader Geoffrey Newton from Falls Church, Virginia, asks:

Why do airlines still use dot matrix printers?

For many companies that use outdated software and hardware, the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” will probably explain why they still rely on it. 

That seems to be the case for dot matrix printers, clunky and noisy pieces of machinery that major U.S. airlines, such as American and Delta, have continued to use for years. They’re not alone either, with government offices and car dealerships depending on them as well. 

These dot matrix printers are a type of printer “that uses hammers and a ribbon to form images from dots,” according to PC Magazine. These dot hammers “press the ribbon into the paper,” which releases ink. More hammers will yield a higher resolution. 

Airlines have legacy backend systems that are still compatible with these printers, hence their reluctance to upgrade them, said Blaise Waguespack, a marketing professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s David B. O’Maley College of Business. 

One airline cabin crew member who asked to remain anonymous told us she’s used a system called Sabre that’s the most stable with these printers. She explained that Sabre can allow airlines to communicate with one another for reservations, bookings and operations. 

For example, if you’re flying from St. Louis to Germany, you might take a flight on a U.S. airline to New York City, and then take a flight on a different airline for the final leg. The crew member said the overseas airline needs your information, and a system like Sabre enables the U.S. airline to pass along information about the passenger, like their ticket ID and details about their reservation. 

The crew member noted that “sometimes the information can’t be communicated electronically,” and a printed hard copy of that information can be shown to other stations at the airport if the need arises. 

Another advantage of these printers is they’re durable and consistently work. But while they’re resilient, they can be a source of frustration. 

“I  would take a laser printer any time of the day over a dot matrix printer. I’m so tired of those damn things, because half the time, we can’t read those printouts. They’re so faded. And it takes forever for it to print out,” the crew member said. 

The crew member pointed out that Sabre can work on laser and inkjet printers, but “it’s usually very buggy” and the airline may have to spend a significant amount of money to work out any kinks. 

Waguespack pointed out that using inkjet printers would mean having to buy supplies like cartridges, which can be expensive. 

So for the foreseeable future, you can probably expect to continue seeing these machines at airlines and other businesses. 

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