Let’s face it. Traveling can be stressful. No one likes long lines, crowds, a lack of information or lack of choices when going to airports. Thankfully, airports have been in the forefront of self-service to help deal with the enormous volumes of travelers that go through airports each day.
The airline industry is constantly in the news and most of it is negative: stranded passengers, long delays, lost luggage and bankruptcies. However, airports and airlines have really led the way in the use of self-service check-in kiosks. When introduced several years ago, airline personnel assisted customers as many interacted with the devices for the first time. Customers learned how easy they were to use and now many frequent fliers have completely embraced the technology. As airlines are now discovering, kiosks can also serve passengers in multiple languages.
While many customers have embraced self-service check-in, there are still large numbers of first-time or occasional flyers that need encouragement or direction in using the kiosk. For those who have become accustomed to the speed of the check-in process using a kiosk, the wait and confusion of infrequent users can be frustrating.
Another frustration can come when kiosks are down. US Airways learned this recently when the airline merged its reservation system with America West’s the first weekend in March. Massive delays ensued at kiosks the first few days and glitches continued throughout March.
Customers are not the only ones reaping the benefits of self check-in. Air Canada recently stated that it spends 16 cents to check in a traveler through a kiosk versus $3 through a staffed counter. And the 2006 SITA survey stated that the airline industry’s move toward self-service is saving it billions of dollars.
Continental bragged about its 1,000th kiosk deployment last year in a press release, claiming to have more kiosks per customer than any other airline. Continental has also implemented application acceleration technology which speeds up the transaction time on kiosks.
Once limited to domestic flights, self-check-in is now available to international travelers as passport scanners have been added to newer models.
There has been much interest in common use self-service (CUSS), where airports manage the check-in kiosks rather than the airlines. Las Vegas’s McCarran Airport as well as several airports in Europe have implemented the system. The main benefit for airports is better utilization of space and flow for check-in. Another promise of CUSS is to enable more possibilities for remote check-in, such as convention centers, hotels and airport parking.
Safe and secure
After checking in, the next stage of self-service adoption is coming to security. Airports are continuing to roll-out registered traveler programs that help frequent fliers speed through security after completing a background check and paying a fee. Shoe scanners are a new addition to the effort to make going through security more effortless.
The U.S. and Canada have recently agreed on the use of border security kiosks through the NEXUS program at Canadian airports for travelers who cross the border frequently.
Biometrics is increasingly being used at security, such as iris recognition, fingerprint scans and facial recognition technology. There is also a growing acceptance of biometrics among consumers as they become more educated about its use and recognize the benefits.
Trying to bring it all together and simplify air travel, the Hong Kong Airport Authority, Immigration Department and Cathay Pacific are engaged in a six-month trial of a new kiosk that integrates immigration, boarding and luggage.
The restrictions on liquids at security have proved a challenge for airports and passengers alike. Entrepreneurial companies like Mail Safe Express have sprung up offering to ship banned items home. At Chicago O’Hare, security officers direct passengers who want to ship these items to a touchscreen kiosk. The 60-day test was deemed successful enough to implement them at nearby Midway Airport.
Once through security, passengers become shoppers if they have time before their flight. ZoomSystems has taken vending to a whole new level, enabling people to buy high-end items such as iPods and Bose headsets through modern vending machines.
Sony has gotten into the act by selling its products through a Sony-branded kiosk called Access. At the recent GlobalShop show in Las Vegas, retail fixtures manufacturer idX displayed its new automated store, Shop Robotic. With products brightly displayed so near the glass that you feel like you can reach out and touch them, watching items be dispensed is a fascinating part of the experience.
At your service
Staffed information counters with brochure racks are a common site in airports. Chicago O’Hare has recently installed an interactive touchscreen kiosk that provides travel information to visitors. The kiosk, which officials are calling a “virtual concierge,” provides airport, hotel, transportation and weather information in seven languages.
Smarte Carte, makers of the ubiquitous luggage carts for rental, now outfit their lockers with touchscreens. The company has also introduced cell phone charging kiosks.
As the majority of passengers and airport visitors carry cell phones, it’s no surprise that pay phone usage has decreased dramatically. As a testament, some pay phone stations have been replaced by internet access kiosks. While internet access kiosks still have promise outside the U.S., within the country the growth has probably peaked since so many people carry laptops or some other wireless internet device with them.
Self-service business centers like PowerPort provide laptop rentals, printing, and recharging stations for electronics. For those passengers that need to recharge their body, automated massage chairs are cropping up as an additional revenue source.
A new product that seems perfect for airports is a self-service document shredder from RealTime Shredding. The machine quietly shreds stacks of paper (including staples or paper clips) as well as CDs. Unloading unwanted confidential documents before or after a flight could be a great service for passengers.
Frequent flyer enrollment
Qatar Airways has initiated an instant frequent-flyer enrollment kiosk for new members at Doha International Airport. Situated in the Qatar Airways Business class lounge at the airport, the kiosk dispenses membership cards immediately after passengers complete their registration.
In November, Alamo Rent A Car announced that it would roll out self-service kiosks at all its locations in the U.S. after successful tests in Dallas, Las Vegas and Jacksonville, Fla. The company claims that the kiosks reduce check-in time by 50 percent compared to typical counter service. The kiosks use an ID scanning technology by Intelli-Check.
“Self-service eliminates one more hassle from family travel,” said Jerry Dow, Alamo's chief marketing officer in a company release. “Customers are already comfortable using the check-in kiosk for flights, using a self-service kiosk for car rental is a natural progression.”
Like a good employee, the kiosk always suggests an upgrade.
Another innovation from Smarte Carte has been a new kiosk that lets customers use their credit card for a voucher to pay for taxicab fares. The kiosk is being tested in Salt Lake City.
Frontier Airlines announced recently that it plans to allow rebooking at kiosks for canceled flights at Denver International Airport. This could be a good way to speed up the process and enable frustrated passengers to make alternative plans.
Digital signage is taking the world by storm and would deserve an article all on its own to do it justice. Interactive digital signage, like the one unveiled at O’Hare last year, is an example of the possibilities out there.
New forms of payment are coming on the scene, ranging from vending machines that accept credit cards for micro payments to biometrics like those implemented by Pay By Touch. Payment using a cell phone has been discussed for a few years and is closer to reality. Rather than using RFID technology like contactless credit cards, chips can be added to phones that will enable them to exchange secure data (like a credit card number) with a reader.
While checking into a flight from home or a hotel is not new, companies like Hilton have tested check-in kiosks at airports. Could CUSS also bring major hotel properties together under one kiosk?
While it’s always difficult to predict the future, one thing seems certain: travel self-service is here to stay.