An Airport Without Agents
This one is already underway. At several airports in Europe, the security queue is guarded by an electronic gate where you scan your boarding pass to enter. A person doesn’t check you.
In the US, I can’t remember the last time I’ve talked to a check-in agent. Automated self-tagging and bag drops are becoming more common, as are kiosks. Even boarding and lounges are moving to automated gates.
This is great for us, since it means fewer bottlenecks where someone looks at a piece of paper and lets you pass. It also means that it frees up airport and airline employees to help passengers who need more assistance (first time travelers, families, people with mobility issues).
Currently, I can show up to the airport 45 minutes before nearly any departure in most US and European airports, slip through security, mobile boarding pass in hand and be at the gate with a comfortable amount of time to spare, maybe even with enough time to grab a coffee from the lounge. I think this will become the norm for more and more people, especially as they become more sophisticated travelers.
After talking with over 50 airlines this year as part of my day job, the one common message is clear. Airlines are feeling increasingly constrained by the high cost of labor. Span of control (the number of direct reports a manager or executive has) at corporate has ballooned and fewer people are left covering more markets and activities than they did even 5 or 10 years ago.
Spinning up a workforce of 2 or 3 people in every outstation you fly to is also impractical, so airlines rely heavily on contract ground staff at many small and midsize airports (or even larger operations where there may be 1 airline employee supervising 6 or 7 contractors who do check-in, tagging and boarding tasks)
But most travelers aren’t us. We know the drill, the process and can breeze through crowded airport situations in a fraction of the time (boarding pass already minted, packed light in a carry-on, can use priority boarding lane). What about infrequent travelers that show up to the airport 3 (or more!) hours in advance, get frustrated the check-in desk isn’t open for their flight yet and languish in the departure hall for an hour until it does? Machines don’t care when you or they arrive.
Airlines might be well-served in identifying passengers that have a relationship with them, even if it’s a cursory one (like flying once a year to get from college to home) that won’t get you status and work on automating the experience for them as early majority travelers. Proactive push notifications and more intuitive self-service apps are part of the improvements, so are reducing process bottlenecks (Vueling simply sends you a boarding pass when you purchase your ticket).
Where Do You Stand On This?
In theory, people on the ground should be improving your experience, but it’s important to recognize that they are often in positions where the upside is a normal interaction “Here is your boarding pass” which is quickly forgettable and the downside is a service failure “That will be $150 for your oversize bag.” that can quickly sour your trip. Sure, positive interactions can also occur “You look like you’ve have a rough day, here’s your new boarding pass (Seat 1A) ::wink::” but those types of exceptions are far less likely to become automated.
Why Machines Can Help
But people will get far less irate if those negative and forgettable interactions are handled by a machine (it’s hard to get mad at a kiosk) which can enforce policies in a more uniform way, and people on the ground can override them in extenuating circumstances. Jumping to automated regimes also means that many policies get revisited and updated by corporate (like do I really need to show you my return ticket to fly to Europe?) and more evenly applied. People, even employees, forget baggage allowances, routing rules, seat maps or even directions to the lounge and that can be especially frustrating as a customer if you realize you’re more up to date on the airline policies than its own employee or contractor is.
So where do you stand? Do you look forward to fewer airline and contract employees and more self-service by machines? How about your mom or your Uncle Joe?
Will a country or airport authority roll out their first automated terminal?
It’s not inconceivable that in the future, when you get to the airport, or when your Uncle Joe gets to the airport, the first person they encounter is actually the one welcoming them onboard.