(all images: Air France – KLM)
Airports and airlines embraced the self-service revolution over a decade ago. The industry started by replacing traditional check-in desks with kiosks and simple bag drop positions, reducing the need for large check-in areas and – more importantly – staff. After all, the salary of an agent printing a bag tag and labelling a suitcase is much lower than a highly departure control system (DCS)-trained colleague.
Subsequently, online services were added which enabled passengers to check-in at home, choose their seats and print their boarding passes in advance. This further reduced the need for having multiple agents and desks.
Those airports that are ahead of the pack are now offering a fully automated passenger ground experience, including self-check-in, self-bag drop, automated border control, self-transfer, self-boarding and even self-service recovery. Of course, these are complemented by online and mobile services. It means that passengers never really have to see an airline agent again, and from what we hear, they may like it that way.
So what does the future hold for automatic engagement with passengers?
First of all, I don’t think airlines will ever reach 100% self-service, and frankly this should not even be their goal. For premium passengers, a choice should be offered between automation and a friendly, helpful airline agent. Considering they are the airlines largest source of revenue, this is the least they can do.
Secondly, the check-in process is often complicated enough that some passengers will always still need personal assistance. Ironically, this creates the need for highly trained agents that are able to solve the most complicated passenger problems. We see more and more airlines now equipping their staff with tablet devices so they can be on-hand when passenger problems occur, and provide them with a full suite of services: DCS access; language assistance; visa information; service recovery; and any information that can be found online. Apparently those airlines have reached their limits in terms of staff reductions.
Even if we look at the airports that do have a full self-service suite more closely, there are still a few improvements that can be made.
One area where improvements could be made is at the security checkpoint, which is now considered to be the biggest bottle neck. Checking every item on every person surely could be done in a much more efficient way, but improvements in this area are moving very slowly. The IATA checkpoint of the future is aimed at improving the checkpoint process by the intelligent use of passenger information and technology that can scan people and objects at a distance.
Secondly, checking travel documents is still a predominantly manual process. Passport checks, boarding pass checks, visa checks are mostly done by people, and not just that, every five minutes another person is asking for your documents, from bag drop to the boarding gate. Biometrics could provide a breakthrough in this area. More than 140 airports worldwide are already expediting passengers through automated border control using biometrics. Here, a single token is available that can be used to replace both the passport and the boarding pass. By connecting the DCS to the automated border control system, a data package is created of the facial or iris image, passport and boarding pass details that can be used throughout the ground process. Just by looking into a camera, passengers can be identified and connected to their passport and reservation.
Another technology that can be used is near field communication, which can provide passengers with a boarding pass on their smartphone that can be read by simply tapping the phone to a reader. There’s no need for an internet connection in the terminal, or even a fully charged battery, as the phone will use energy from the reader.
Looking back at the self-service revolution that has taken over our airports, we can conclude that version 1.0 – in terms of innovation – has been completed. Version 2.0 will be all about the connected passenger, seamless and intuitive flows, and improved security and borders. Although new technologies come with new challenges, there is still plenty of work to be done to create the best future passenger ground experience.