I have a love/hate relationship with automated kiosks. Sometimes they’re amazing. I can force myself to be charming and witty even if I’ve been up for 36 hours without sleep and have a tired fiancee in tow. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I want to be, so if an automated kiosk can print my boarding pass and let me get on my way with minimal human interaction, everybody wins.
Other times I really need to talk to a person about my problem, or I just don’t see how a kiosk is going to save me any time. Like when I wanted to check my bag on a recent Alaska Airlines flight in Las Vegas. The signs were vague, and though I knew I had the option of printing my boarding pass at a kiosk before dropping off my bag, I didn’t realize it was mandatory. It didn’t seem to save anyone time, especially since the bag agent had her own computer and printer and could have printed my boarding pass for me while taking my bag (she still had to look up my reservation, check my ID, and print a meal voucher for me since this was my rebooked flight after the one last night was cancelled).
Alaska will let you self-check your bags at Seattle, and Qantas has experimented with permanent RFID bag tags for elite passengers in Australia. These measures presumably avoid the required wait to check your bags with airline personnel, but I find that if anything it has the opposite effect as airlines lower staffing levels even further. You’ll save time if you take advantage of the automated process; those who continue to rely on a person will now require more time than before. United’s operations at Seattle are particularly annoying because even though I can usually check-in quite quickly using a kiosk, it can take forever to check a bag. Even though I’m a Premier 1K. There might only be four agents behind the entire counter, and three of them are focusing on general passengers. That leaves ONE AGENT for all credit card holders and elite passengers–hardly the kind of service I expect for my business.
Something else I noticed during that flight at Las Vegas: automated boarding gates. Now that the airlines have vacated their responsibility to book your travel (thanks to the Internet), print your boarding pass, or tag your luggage, they want to go one step further and let you get through the scrum of seven different boarding groups rushing to board the plane. As an article in today’s Wall Street Journal describes it, we’re heading toward a “self-service airport.”
There are several problems with this trend that you can probably already discern from my anecdotes above.
Self-service sometimes means “no service.” If anything goes wrong with the kiosk, you need a person to fix it and bypass the system. Most kiosks I’ve seen are stupid and inflexible. If I want to change a flight, I generally need to talk to a person. If I need to change a seat assignment, it can’t be after check-in. If I want to be added to the VDB list, that needs to be handled manually unless the computer has already deigned to offer me such an option. If I need to do just about anything except print a boarding pass, the kiosk is difficult or impossible to use. As staff are cut in greater numbers than the kiosks that replace them, it can be frustrating to find anyone able to help.
Time savings can be minimal. Unless you are an experienced traveler or just very tech savvy (probably both), the automation isn’t going to save you or the airlines much time. Even I didn’t quite understand how the check-in system worked at Las Vegas. When I take my mother or my future mother-in-law to the airport to fly home on Southwest, an airline with some of the best customer service, I have to stand with them in line because the kiosk is overwhelming. Even with more agents behind each kiosk, they just point at the kiosk and tell them to follow instructions, so I usually have to take over.
Kiosks fail. This could fit into either of the above categories, but I’m going to set it apart. WSJ gives an example of the automated gate check-in system at Las Vegas failing after the first few passengers. Unlike the occasional broken kiosk, where you just move over to the next one, a failure of the entire system means you can’t check-in or board anyone unless there is a backup system in place. And to make sure system #2 is operating smoothly and can be switched over to #1 at a moments’ notice, you still need a gate agent to monitor the whole process. There are no labor savings. There probably aren’t even any time savings since the existing manual boarding process is fast enough that passengers usually form a backlog in the jetway.
Good security requires human oversight. Although not specifically linked to the boarding kiosks, I think all this automation is weakening one of the few important security checkpoints for air travel. We screen the names on reservations and check IDs before people get a boarding pass, and we screen passengers’ bodies and luggage before they enter the departure area. But the point of all of this is really to prevent the knives, guns, and bombs from getting onto the plane. There was an incident earlier this year in which a recently released convict was able to pass through the emergency exit door in a public, non-secure area of the terminal and walked along the tarmac to board a nearby regional jet.
The local police and TSA are brushing this off, saying that it’s all okay because he was caught in the end. But the only reason he was identified is that a flight attendant was comparing the number of passengers on board to the number on the flight manifest. Automated alarms and security cameras did squat. What keeps a person from jumping an automated boarding kiosk like at any subway station, or even just walking around it?
Really, I do like automated kiosks for those times when they can save me from a long line to address a simple problem, like printing a boarding pass. But far too often they drive me to exasperation. Kiosks should augment existing staff, not replace every part of a company involved in customer interaction with a glowing red eye.
I’m sorry Scottrick, I’m afraid I can’t do that.
The HAL9000, coming soon to an airport kiosk near you.