Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Sane Travels

Fast on the heels of news that many airports are planning or have already implemented improvements in the gate environment, comes two more pieces of positive change for air travelers.

Welcome to the Self-Service Airport (WSJ-sub req):

Airlines are laying the groundwork for the next big step in the increasingly automated airport experience: a trip from the curb to the plane without interacting with a single airline employee.

For years, travelers have been checking in online or at airport kiosks, and more recently, airlines have converted paper boarding passes into electronic ones. Now carriers are turning to technology that enables travelers to check their own bags and scan those boarding passes—but not always without snags.

At the airport of the near future, "your first interaction could be with a flight attendant," said Ben Minicucci, chief operating officer of Alaska Airlines, a unit of Alaska Air Group Inc. The carrier has been at the forefront of self-service in the U.S., recently introducing self-tagging of baggage in Seattle and San Diego with eight more airports planned this year.

After testing the technology in Austin, Texas, AMR Corp.'s American Airlines is rolling out kiosks that direct travelers to tag their own checked bags in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and other major airports over the next two years. And last month in Las Vegas, JetBlue Airways Corp. became the first U.S. airline to officially implement self-boarding gates, where fliers scan their own tickets to board the plane.

Airlines say the advanced technology will quicken the airport experience for seasoned travelers—shaving a minute or two from the checked-baggage process alone—while freeing airline employees to focus on fliers with questions. "It's more about throughput with the resources you have than getting rid of humans," said Andrew O'Connor, director of airport solutions at Geneva-based airline IT provider SITA.

It’s remindful of the old Esurance line, “Technology when you want it, people when you don’t.” Less interactions equals less lines equal less waiting equals lower stress for the traveler.

Lock Seatbelt, Play On (WSJ-sub req):

Airplane passengers may soon be able to read their e-books, play video games and work on their laptops during takeoffs and landings.

The Federal Aviation Administration currently requires airlines to determine that the in-flight use of tablets, mobile phones and laptops is safe, and all U.S. carriers now ban using these devices during takeoffs and landings. But the FAA unveiled plans Monday to form a government-industry group to explore expanding in-flight use of the devices with the cellular connection switched off.

The study comes amid mounting pressure to relax restrictions as flight crews increase the operational use of such devices.

Okay, at this point they’re only saying that they will “explore” relaxing these silly restrictions. But it’s a start. And who knows, if we continue to see these kind of improvement continue we could even get to the point where the air travel experience is once again tolerable. Enjoyable would be even better, but we’re a long way from that today. Baby steps.