Airline Service Evolves; Fliers Forced to Pick Up Where Staff Cutbacks Left Off

As airlines have slashed the number of workers to cut costs, they've increasingly substituted automated services for jobs humans once did.


Allen Crockett is a do-it-yourself flier.

Though he travels 100,000 miles a year, the telecommunications sales executive from Raleigh, N.C., rarely talks to an airline employee on the phone or at the airport.

He buys tickets online. He prints boarding passes at home. And he gets alerts from American Airlines on his cellphone if his flight has been delayed. If he doesn't have an exit-row or front-of-the-section seat, he checks in at a kiosk at the airport to see if he can get one at the last minute.

And when he recently lost a bag on a trip to Chicago, he found it by using American's automated voice-recognition software.

"Online doesn't give you the attitude," he says.

Crockett is part of a dramatic shift in the air-travel experience. As airlines have slashed the number of workers to cut costs, they've increasingly substituted automated services for jobs humans once did. Travelers are becoming used to the technology, and they're doing more of the work themselves, including shuffling luggage through bomb detection.

"Airlines have trained us, and now it's second nature to us," says Steve Morrison, a Northeastern University professor who studies the airline industry.

Some veteran travelers say the changes are liberating because now they don't have to face long lines and overwhelmed employees at airports. Others say the changes mean poor and impersonal customer service at a time when stringent security procedures and increasing passenger volume make flying a colorless and tiring affair.

Yet most have accepted the changes, realizing they're trading less service for relatively low airfares.

"Would customers say they're satisfied? I don't think that's the right word. It's more like they're resigned to the situation," says Morrison. "But you have low fares and lower quality of service. For consumers, as a group, that's good."

Strapped airlines cut staffs

Hit hard by the Sept. 11 attacks, high fuel prices and stiff competition from discounters, big airlines have turned to massive layoffs and dramatic cost cutting to stay afloat. Over the four years following 9/11, the six big traditional carriers -- American, United, Delta, Northwest, US Airways and Continental -- eliminated 34% of their combined workforces, according to government figures. Four of the six carriers -- all but Continental and American -- have filed under Chapter 11 for bankruptcy-court protection since 9/11, allowing them to shed many of their costly obligations.

To cope with dramatic cutbacks, in 2002 airlines began investing heavily in automation technology and aggressively campaigning for travelers to use it at home and at airports. Daniel Henry, managing director of consumer technology at American Airlines, says the effort has been successful, and, "People are getting to the point where they want to use technology."

Check-in kiosks, the most visible symbol of the industry's technology push at airports, have been around since the late 1990s, and customers' usage has grown tremendously.

Nearly 70% of business travelers used airport kiosks in 2005, says Henry Harteveldt of Forrester Research. IBM, one of the largest kiosk makers, says it sold about 2,000 kiosks last year, five times more than in 2000.

The time it takes American Airlines to process a kiosk customer at check-in is now down to 58 seconds, compared with 90 seconds in 2000, the carrier says. About 68% of its domestic passengers check in through its website or kiosks, up from 5% in 2000 when it introduced kiosks.

United recently introduced a plan to encourage greater kiosk use and cut wait times at check-in lines. Being tested in Denver, the plan has customer-service agents approach fliers earlier to help walk them through the kiosk operation. The plan has cut the average wait time during peak shifts to 15 minutes, the company says.

Airlines are relying on technologies other than just their websites and kiosks:

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