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

Feb. 22, 2006
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:

*Voice-recognition software. Calls to customer-service agents are expensive for airlines, leading to the industry's greater reliance on voice-recognition software. Though often annoying and unreliable, the software can help passengers confirm flights and delays, locate lost luggage and confirm seat upgrades.

*Mobile devices. Cellphones and hand-held devices, such as BlackBerrys, are increasingly useful for air travelers. Nearly all airlines have a simpler version of their websites to let passengers check flight status in real-time using hand-held devices. Southwest customers can vie for its coveted first boarding group by checking in wirelessly.

For canceled flights, American Airlines' new reservation system locates and rebooks the next best itinerary and alerts passengers by e-mail.

How customers react to the emerging technologies depends largely on the mileage they log, says Dean Headley, a professor at Wichita State University who studies airline customer satisfaction. New technologies often frustrate casual travelers, while veteran road warriors "have gotten over the hump," he says.

Rob Fisher, a Charlotte-based publisher for American City Business Journals newspapers, flies at least once a week. And he agrees: "As long as you don't have to interact with human (agents), it's pretty efficient."

When only a human can help

No technology can adequately replace help from a human when there are major disruptions from weather, cancellations or heavy holiday traffic, labor union and customers say. "Kiosks are good for domestic and on-time flights only," says John Hanson of Communications Workers of America, which represents airline customer-service agents. "Any delays, and they kick you to the main line" counter.

Staffing problems have been particularly acute at airport counters and gates. For example, since 2001, the number of US Airways customer-service agents nationwide has been cut in half to about 5,500, Hanson says.

At Charlotte Douglas airport, one of US Airways' hubs, the number of counter and gate agents fell to 371 in 2005 from about 500 in 2001, says Jose Gomez, who was CWA's local chapter president until January. US Airways, which merged with America West in September, says the number of agents at the airport totaled 439 as of February.

About 15 agents, with two kiosks, typically ran a US Airways' ticketing counter at the airport pre-9/11. There are now 22 machines and fewer agents on a typical day, Gomez says.

A US Airways concourse in Charlotte with 16 gates used to be staffed by 32 agents before 9/11, compared with 24 agents, he says.

When manning a gate alone, agents often have to shut down their counters early to process boarding. "If you go up to the counter for help as the agent is ready to board people, they'll often say, 'Sorry, we can't help,'" Gomez says.

Some airlines have begun to acknowledge the problems of understaffing.

US Airways says it has been steadily hiring more employees at key hubs since the merger. It hired 400 customer-service agents and bag loaders last year in Philadelphia, the scene of an embarrassing episode in which it misplaced some 10,000 bags in December 2004.

The understaffing problems are more pronounced because flights on average are fuller than in recent years, says Tom Kochan, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies airline labor data. Since the first quarter of 2000, the number of available seat-miles per full-time employee -- a common industry gauge of labor productivity -- rose by 30% in 2005.

"There's more work and stress on the workforce," he says. "And as planes get fuller, that makes it uncomfortable for passengers."

Consumer research supports Kochan's view. After querying 35,000 people, Market Metrix, a customer-service research firm, said in September that passengers were generally dissatisfied with five of the six traditional carriers. They were satisfied only with Continental. A study by J.D. Powers in March last year revealed similar results, with only Continental and Delta surpassing the industry's average score for customer satisfaction. In the surveys, customers were more satisfied with discount carriers, particularly JetBlue and Southwest.

Lowering your expectations

Jonathan Barsky of Market Metrix says discount airlines fare better in surveys of customer satisfaction not because their service is better, but because they are better at managing customers' expectations. Customers simply expect less.

In offering low fares, discounters make it clear to passengers that their flights offer few benefits other than peanuts and pretzels.

Mike Boyd, an industry consultant, argues passengers may not be as dissatisfied as surveys indicate. The industry is more efficient now, and automation technology mostly works well, he says. "It's like monkey see, monkey bad. People say customer service is bad, so people just repeat that," he says.

The chief sources of aggravation are delays and cancellations caused by weather and air traffic congestion, Boyd says. The number of complaints about U.S. airlines filed with the Department of Transportation in November rose 23% from a year earlier to 395, with delays and cancellations the most cited reasons.

Besides, satisfying airline customers has always been difficult, Boyd says, because, "Flying is something people don't generally want to do."

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