Friday, September 14, 2007

Would self-service airports be better than what we have now?

Normally descriptions of sterile future environments clad in stainless steel and devoid of bustling humans can get pretty creepy and dystopian, but after reading this blog post at Smarter Travel I wonder if airports might be an exception to that rule.

While few would argue that airline check-in kiosks have dramatically improved things both travelers and airlines, Smarter Travel posits that we could probably see even better results -- including lower costs, less stress and lower airport traffic -- by pushing self-service to the limits. Envision, as they suggest, this scenario:
As the automatic doors part, you step into your familiar old airport. Except it's not familiar at all. Gone are the ticket clerks, baggage handlers, and other airline personnel you've long depended on to get you and your luggage to your destination. You walk up to a kiosk and check in for your flight by waving your cell phone at a laser, then drop your suitcase into a chute, and proceed to security. You're ready to fly and it's only been three minutes, but you haven't interacted with a soul.
Creepy? Yeah, still a little. But darned efficient, you have to admit. And it's not just a pipe dream, either. Apparently there are proposals on the table to fit Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport with this kind of technology, along with other possible concepts like a shared check-in counter for all airlines and RFID luggage tracking. But the article also notes that just like other self-service experiments it will take a combination of customer education, employee training and a good deal of hand-holding to make everything work properly. Smart Traveler ultimately asks two critical questions: "if there's no one around to help when the machines break down,
what do you do?", and "are airline officials really interested in
improving the customer experience, or is the prospect of cutting labor
costs really behind this push to automate airports?"

These and others will certainly need to be addressed, but I'd say they're part of the same, larger question of, "do airline officials realize that making things better for customers can make things better for the airlines as well?" After the rapid adoption of self-service check-in kiosks, I'm hoping they've started to realize that. To realize the kinds of benefits that they're hoping for with this new level of automation, airlines and airport management companies need a true win-win scenario -- without customer, airport and airline all receiving some benefit from the new technology and practices, the system will never take off, if you'll pardon the pun.

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