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OM in the News: The Self-Service Airport

September 4, 2012

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, writes The Wall Street Journal (Aug.28, 2012).

For years, travelers have been checking in online or at airport kiosks and airlines have been converting 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, a topic we discuss in Chapter 5 on service design.

At the airport of the near future, “your first interaction could be with a flight attendant,” said Ben Minicucci, COO of Alaska Airlines. Alaska Air has been at the forefront of self-service in the U.S., recently introducing self-tagging of baggage in Seattle and San Diego with 8 more airports planned this year. Airlines say the  technology will quicken the airport experience for travelers—shaving 1-2 minutes from the checked-baggage process alone—and freeing airline employees to focus on fliers with questions.

Airline-employee unions say the machines are a way for carriers to cut staff by outsourcing pre boarding tasks to fliers. But a recent survey found self-boarding appeals to 70% of passengers and almost as many travelers want to tag their own bags. Self-tagging and self-boarding have each been implemented in 115 instances around the world.

U.S. airlines and airports are catching up to their counterparts in Europe, where  Lufthansa began testing self-boarding in the late 1990s. That airline officially implemented the technology last year in its three main hubs in Germany, where customers have readily adapted to it. “A lot of our passengers are frequent fliers who really prefer not to talk with staff all the time,” says Lufthansa. Last month in Las Vegas, JetBlue Airways became the first U.S. airline to officially implement self-boarding gates, where fliers scan their own tickets to board the plane.

Discussion questions:

1. In what ways can OM make airline check-in/boarding more efficient?

2. Will the concepts described become standard procedure in a decade? Why or why not?

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