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Self-serve air travel: Welcome aboard

Sarah Gardner Jul 19, 2012

Self-serve air travel: Welcome aboard

Sarah Gardner Jul 19, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: If your vacation plans this summer somehow involve getting on an airplane, our condolences. There’s not much to love about flying anymore. It’s kinda like a trip to the dentist — painful but necessary.

Still, in their defense, airports and airlines are trying to make things better, with a little help from you. Marketplace’s Sarah Gardner reports on the rise of the airport machines.

Airport pager: May I have your attention please, paging Sandy Cooley, please dial zero.

Sarah Gardner: If you want a glimpse into your flying future, check out Terminal 3 at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. It’s new. It’s shiny. It’s…

Samuel Ingalls: If there’s another terminal that’s more technically advanced in the U.S., I don’t know where it is.

Advanced. That’s the way the airport’s chief tech guy Sam Ingalls likes to describe it. Maybe a little too advanced, for some of us. Like the big digital information sign right when you walk in the door. You can download directions to any gate, Starbucks or nail salon in the terminal right from the touch screen sign onto your smartphone.

If you know how, that is.

Gardner: How did you have, what did you have your phone set to to scan that, what did you do?
Ingalls: Well, I…
Gardner: You went to McCarran?
Ingalls: No, actually I didn’t. It’s just a barcode scanner. Almost any of the new smartphones have them.

Ah, the old barcode-scanner-on-the-smartphone trick. I knew that.

The next high-tech challenge was just a few feet away. At the self check-in kiosk, where fliers get to play ticket agent, only without the navy blazer. Not only can passengers print their own boarding passes, they can weigh their own luggage and stick on the bag tag the machine spits out as well.

Ingalls: It is a little bit of a different skill set.

Skill set, huh? I challenged Amanda and Glen, a nice couple from Alberta, Canada, to tag their own bags under 60 seconds. Ready, set, go.

Glen: I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this.
Gardner: Does it seem simple?
Amanda: It is when you see them do it. It’s really easy.

Amanda and Glen failed my 60-second challenge, but they figured it out eventually. They said anything that would save them from waiting in long lines at check-in? Thumbs up.

This airport and a few others in the U.S. are testing out self-boarding as well. That’s where fliers scan their own boarding passes, paper or mobile, at turnstiles like the ones in the subway.

Ingalls: This really, once again, puts the power of the process in the hands of the traveler.

Self check-in, self-tagging, self-boarding. This is your flying future, says Ingalls. Pretty soon, you’ll be able to get on an airplane without having to utter a single word to another human being. Unless the TSA guys interrogate you.

Anthony: Personally I like doing things myself. So this way, I’m more in control.

But that Air Canada passenger named Anthony, his control can be another person’s job loss.

James Carlson: Our biggest fear is the move toward automation is a move to cut workers.

James Carlson speaks for a union that represents thousands of airport workers. In the last 12 years, airlines have slashed nearly a third of their labor force, and Carlson suspects they’re not done. Airlines make razor-thin profit margins and they’re eager to cut costs, says Henry Harteveldt at Atmosphere Research Group.

Henry Harteveldt: The savings to an airline from this self-service can be tens of millions of dollars a year.

Harteveldt says all this new airport technology can be more efficient. Except, when it’s not.

Harteveldt: When we have bad weather like snowstorms or massive rainstorms that close airports and delay a lot of flights that’s where things fall apart.

But at the Las Vegas airport, there’s one piece of technology that probably would still work well, even in bad weather. Last year, the airport here made $40 million off its slot machines.

At McCarran International in Las Vegas, I’m Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

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