Airlines Find New Ways to Speed Up Queues

Story Filed: Friday, February 12, 1999 09:52 PM EST

Feb. 12, 1999 (WORLD AIRLINE NEWS, Vol. 9, No. 7 via COMTEX) -- Airline passengers these days are moving at warp speed on the Internet to book trips, but the pace slows to a crawl inside the terminal, when passengers are forced to lope like cattle through rope- lined check-in areas. However, that experience seems to be changing as more airlines introduce new technologies.

Alaska Airlines [ALK], American Airlines [AMR], Northwest [NWAC] and Shuttle by United [UAL] are among the carriers moving travelers with less-complicated transactions with the help of hi-tech tools including kiosks and hand-held devices. At the pre-flight boarding stage, some major carriers also are using electronic reader machines to speed up the process.

The slowdown in airports is primarily occurring at the passenger check-in stage. Delays breed anxiety and triggers irritability among customers who in turn fire off nasty letters about lousy service to airline executives, said Michael Boyd, president of Colorado-based The Boyd Group.

For all the signs that airlines are moving off center to embrace technology more widely in their operations, Boyd maintains that the industry is putting its interests first. "(The major carriers) have taken customer service and replaced it with computerized crowd control. It's more computerized for the airlines and more complicated for the consumer."

Dick Marchi, senior vice president of technology for Airports Council International North America (ACI), says airlines have had no incentives to aggressively apply technologies to speed up passenger processing, largely because the deck is stacked in their favor. "So begrudgingly, the industry is removing the blinders toward applying technology to their operations."

But Marchi is quick to add, "they are beginning from a base that is fairly rudimentary. Once a new technology begins to be implemented, especially one that affects customer service, others will be quick to mimic it. However, the systematic problem is that industry doesn't seem to be proactive to investigate these technologies that could be implemented."

The Air Transport Association (ATA) doesn't agree. "We are moving 600 million customers," said ATA's David Fuscus. "The airlines are one industry group that has been quick to embrace new technology. In general, all of the airlines claim to encourage their passengers who are not checking in bags and less complicated transactions to avoid the check-in lines, and go directly to the gate where their flight will board."

Alaska Airlines is garnering the most attention for the ways it's augmenting the age-old way of passenger check-in with Instant Travel Self-Service Kiosks. At California's Oakland International Airport, for example, kiosks are situated curbside across from Alaska's check-in counters and in the concourse area, where the carrier's arrival and departure gates are located.

"Structure begets structure and it looks like Alaska has broken from that tyranny," Boyd said. The touch-screen kiosk system, which Northwest and Shuttle by United also operates are much like bank automatic teller machines. A passenger enters his or her confirmation code or the credit card number used to purchase a ticket. After answering regulatory security questions, the passenger gets a printout of their boarding pass complete with seat assignments and receipt.

Pre-flight boarding is another example where technology is making inroads to speed up the process. United and American are among those using ticket reader machines to speed up the boarding process at Oakland International. Tickets are fed into a machine which then determines available seating, seat duplication and passenger count. However, security is the most important service gained. The machine helps to identify which luggage belongs on the plane before the flight departs.

Seemingly every airline is attempting to introduce one innovation or another. But in some systems, high-tech gizmos turn out to be more of a hindrance than help to the passenger. Southwest Airlines [LUV], which was the first airline to use hand-held check-in devices, stopped using them when the carrier switched to ticketless travel. "You have to know when and where to use technology," said Southwest's John Esplana. The Boyd Group, 303/674-2000, Fuscus, 202/626-4205, Southwest, 214/904-5171, ACI, 202/293-8500<<

Copyright © 1999, Phillips Publishing International, all rights reserved.

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