Is “Automated” Bag Drop Really Saving Anyone Any Time?

Automation seems to be the name of the game in the airline industry these days. Whether the motivation is to eliminate errors or reduce staffing head counts, the chances of actually dealing with a live individual during your travel experience are becoming slimmer every day. But as I continue to see this trend playing out, I’m amazed that queues and wait times don’t seem to get any shorter.  Airlines are very good at buying technology (true) and in love with the idea of automation (in theory). Yet if the end result doesn’t amount to a better passenger experience, or even less costs to the airline, what is the point?

My case-in-point this time comes from American Airlines’ Terminal 8 at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. I had already checked in online and registered my checked bag. So you can imagine my surprise, after being directed to “bag drop”, when I walked into the scene pictured below.

JFK Terminal 8

Lots of people, lots of computers, little direction.

At my count, there was 44 people in line, some of whom had checked in already, some of whom hadn’t, and not a single sign directing the two groups differently. If I still need to wait in this queue with everyone else who hasn’t yet checked in, just to get a baggage label printed, doesn’t that defeat the purpose of checking in online to begin with?

JFK Terminal 8 AA

Might as well say "Check In Here" as well...

Additionally, despite the banks of computers you see, the queue built up because every person checking a bag had to eventually see one of the three agents pictured.

JFK Terminal 8 Bag Drop

Finally creeping closer to dropping the bag....

While this new process for American looks good for brochures, and keeps companies like ARINC happy, what is really the end result? If we rewind 10 or 20 years ago, I still had to wait in line, speak to an agent, and drop my bag. And if it is because it’s such a new process that American requires everyone to funnel through a “live” agent, to avoid surefire confusion, then at least some clear signage would help. And not only for the passenger–I’m sure their harried staff would appreciate the help as well.

Technology can help the travel process, but only if the process is effectively managed to leverage the technology. Just like with social media, the mere presence of this technology creates heightened passenger expectations, and if you are not going to deliver any smoother of a process than you did before, what purpose does the expenditure serve, when you could just as easily keep a few more head on payroll instead?

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Customer Engagement Strategy for the Airline Industry