Do you want an Airline Experience without Humans?

By | August 19, 2011
Paris-Orly Airport

Image via Wikipedia

It is a sad fact of life that more and more human interaction is being replaced by computers. Or perhaps it isn’t in some cases, where we’d rather not talk to a human being. But Paris’ Orly Airport is experimenting with a virtual boarding agent.

They recorded several actual boarding agents, and rear-project them onto a human shaped piece of plexiglass. While this sort of thing is a novelty, the question is this: Would you be satisfied with an airline experience that involved little to no human interaction?

Let’s take you through some steps..

  • You buy your ticket online.
  • You check in online and print a boarding pass
  • You go to the airport
  • You use a kiosk to weigh and tag your own luggage. The machine has safeguards to prevent extra or overweight pieces from being put on the belt without charge.
  • You head to security. The computer screening devices will not let you pass if you do not pass the automated screenings…but the government mandates a human being sit around and watch the computer work. He doesn’t talk to you though.
  • You get to the gate. When the flight is ready for boarding, a human being activates the automatic boarding system. Recordings and maybe even these human projections provide instructions and take you through the boarding process. There may even be a turnstile to prevent people from boarding without scanning their boarding pass.
  • You’ve now gotten all the way onto the plane without a single human interaction. Yay for automation.

Is this bad or good? On our last JetBlue trip out of their terminal at JFK, they already had automated boarding announcements. Airlines feel the financial crunch of our demands on them, coupled with fuel. That is why they are looking to fees for profit. We demand low fares and many services, and cuts have to come somewhere.

An investment in automation means less employees are needed to run the operation. And employees are expensive. Spirit Airlines announced several airport related fees in this vein. If you want a human being to print you a boarding pass…that’s $5 beginning November 1st. Next summer, if you want to use a kiosk, that’s a $1 convenience fee.

We don’t object to fees for services that cost the airline more money that can be done more easily. But we prefer it, even though it is the same effect, to be a discount on self-service, rather than a fee on service. But charging to use a kiosk? Now even using the automation costs?

The question is: What is the correct balance between the use of automation, and keeping a certain level of human interaction in the airline industry? How long before airlines start asking the FAA if they can have one less Flight Attendant?

Maybe we’re being silly…but it is food for thought.