Running an airline is an information intensive business. From the time a potential passenger inquires about fares and availability till she has completed her travel and is looking for her luggage, there is a lot going on and many details to keep track of. It is hardly surprising then that airlines were early adopters of computer technology. The grim times airlines have gone through over the last decade, however, may have kept from keeping up with every possible development in technology. As the New York Times reports, airlines are making new investments to modernize their systems (Airlines Work to Catch Up to the Digital Age, Jun 5). The interesting twist is that these new investments are more aimed at improving customer service and the traveling experience than at improving airline efficiency.
The carriers are finally recognizing that many of their antiquated systems contribute to passenger frustrations. They have begun developing hand-held devices, a little bigger than cellphones, that have much quicker access to airline data and allow gate agents to assist passengers throughout the terminal.
In theory, gate agents with these devices can anticipate the need to rebook a flight after a missed connection, instead of waiting for passengers to ask. In the future, new technology may allow airlines to know if travelers are stuck in traffic on their way to the airport, thanks to GPS-enabled smartphones, or offer an earlier flight if a traveler shows up with time to spare.
American Airlines calls their system YADA for “your assistance delivered anywhere.” These gizmos are supposed to allow agents to direct travelers to gate changes or, as shown below, print boarding pass.
As we have written about before, these systems allow airlines to have roaming luggage-police to check over-sized items (and claim the baggage check fee) before people hit their gates. I am not sure that really counts as improved customer service. More generally I am unsold that these decentralized systems will anything much better.
Here is I suspect is how AA wants YADA to work: A flight comes into O’Hare a little late. Everything else is basically running OK but a passenger or two on the delayed flight may need assistance on finding their connecting gate pronto or may even need to be rescheduled on to a different flight. With YADA, they just need to flag down a wired AA employee and they are taken care of. This all works beautifully when AA agents are plentiful relative to passengers needing aid. YADA then adds a little more zip to a well-running machine.
I am not as sure that these systems add much when they are really needed. When the weather is bad at O’Hare and every AA passenger needs assistance, what is the advantage of having roving support personnel over a long desk of agents? Have you ever been in the Apple Store when it is crowded? Apple likes to say you can checkout anywhere but that is only true if you can get the attention of an employee and that is not easy to do. There is no natural place to queue. There is no way to assure a customer that he or she is next to be served. Instead you are left to hover around one agent until she is free while possibly missing that another employee is available. That’s what O’Hare is going to turn into when the weather is bad — a messy free for all with a lot of stress and unpleasantness. Or more accurately, with some unnecessary stress and unpleasantness. Customers understand that travel is a complex process and that things beyond the airlines control can mess things up. The question then is how best to provide clear guidance and aid. Having some centralized place (or some limited number of places) or even clear signs saying what number to call from one’s cell may make more sense then disaggregated capacity scattered around the terminal.