As the editor of Self-Service World, one of the many things that my colleague, Patrick Avery, does on a daily basis is comb the Web for stories that involve the self-service industry. Not too long ago, he found this gem, reported by the Isle of Man Newspapers:
British airline to charge those who don’t use kiosk
FlyBe has announced it may charge passengers in the future for using its check-in desks at Ronaldsway Airport . The airline plans to install self-service kiosks to speed up the process of checking in for flights. A spokesman for FlyBe said that passengers who wanted to continue to use the traditional check-in desk rather than the self-service kiosks could be charged for doing so in the future.
The story quotes an anonymous source who works for the airline as saying: “We have long been on record as saying that those passengers who want the personal service of a check-in desk or prefer to use one out of habit will be costing other passengers a lot of money.”
In essence: Use self-service — or else.
At the risk of sounding like one of my high school English teachers (who on more than one occasion threatened to “staple my tongue to the Belvedere,” a local Louisville, Ky., landmark), I think there are two things we can glean from this story.
The first is the monumental significance of what the airline is proposing. A year ago — maybe two — the airline industry had representatives standing next to check-in kiosks, urging weary travelers to try the new-fangled self-service devices for the first time. Travelers were skeptical. What was up with these new devices? How did they work? Were they reliable? If I’m a passenger with reservations on a non-stop flight to Boise, is this kiosk going to print out a boarding pass for the red-eye to Tel Aviv?
And what about security? How could we be sure these self-service devices weren’t going to let the guy with two feet of firecracker wick trailing out of his Nikes get on the nearest 747?
Time has since allayed these uncertainties. Not only are the kiosks quick and easy to use, but they also cut down on check-in queues and, according to Air Canada, save on labor costs. What’s more, some custom-use self-service kiosks can in some ways actually help to improve airport security by providing a scanned record of passengers’ passports and other travel documents. And since even malevolent travelers with suspicious shoes still have to face live security screeners, there aren’t too many worries that the kiosks are going to be a free pass for anyone who walks in the door.
The bottom line is that the kiosks are a success. And it is because they are a success that FlyBe airlines is thinking about charging its customers who try to avoid the kiosks. It used to be that the onus was on the airline to prove that the kiosks were beneficial. Now it’s on the traveler to prove that they’re not. That says something about technology adoption.
The second thing I noticed about the article is the glaring use of the qualifier “may.” It’s not that FlyBe is going to start charging fans of live service ... but it "may."
Again, at the risk of sounding like my aforementioned high-school English teacher (who, after reviewing our test grades on another occasion, threatened to throw herself off the Second Street Bridge — another local landmark) that qualifier makes a world of difference.
Congress may balance the budget next year. We may have a manned mission to Mars by 2020 (although this story makes the prospect seem less likely). There may be another Star Wars movie. At this moment, Bigfoot may be at your home, sitting in your Lazy-Boy eating your nachos.
So what does “may” tell us here?
FlyBe is absolutely, positively, 100-percent certain that charging the kiosk-averse is the right thing to do ... but even FlyBe has its doubts. That’s why the “may” is there. (Given the hesitation, one wonders why the airline chose to announce its intentions at all. I mean, why give away the fact that you may or may not do something? Perhaps it was a test.)
It’s an interesting crossroads for the airline — and airlines everywhere, I suppose.
FlyBe will be seen either as a pioneer or that dog in the Aesop fable that dropped the bone in the creek while trying to steal from its own reflection.
So how will consumers see it? Economists will say that depends on which side of the demand curve the proposal falls on. I’ve racked my brain trying to come up with an example of a similar crossroads in another industry, and I keep coming back to the Internet. After online ordering took off, merchants started dishing out significant discounts to customers who chose to buy online rather than in the physical store. Maybe this is like that.
Looking at FlyBe’s proposal, one can see pros and cons.
The Pros: Adoption will increase; costs will decrease. FlyBe could potentially save more in labor costs. Since fewer customers will visit the check-in desk, FlyBe will need fewer attendants. On the consumer side, travelers will probably be able to move through the check-in process more quickly. Additionally, people who may have been afraid of the technology in the past will now have an impetus to check it out, and discover just how user-friendly it can be.
The Cons: FlyBe runs the risk of backlash. Purists who insist on speaking to a human being at the check-in desk might rebel and seek out a different airline.
Either way, however, FlyBe is considering a policy that demonstrates just how far self-service has come. Are self-service check-in kiosks ready to become mandatory devices? Are consumers ready for it? Are the airlines ready for it? Is FlyBe’s proposal good for the industry?
What do you think? Send your comments (anonymously if you like) to and I’ll consider posting them in my next column.