RICHMOND, VA. Dewey Reynolds only flies a few times each year, so it's not like he knows every corner to cut to save time and money. Still, the 64-year-old real estate broker proudly hunts for bargain fares on the Internet and avoids lines at the airport by checking himself onto flights by using electronic kiosks.
"It works like a dream," Dewey said of all the automation the airline industry has introduced in recent years. Sure, there are technological glitches now and then but, all things considered, he's glad the industry's going self-serve.
While the do-it-yourself types are still a minority, their growing ranks are a boon to the airlines. These customers are helping to make airport operations cheaper and more efficient all at once -- a unique bright spot for the recovering industry at a time when revenue growth is slim at best.
The big picture is not lost on travelers, many of whom say they're happy to do a little extra work if it means getting a better deal on a flight and getting through the airport more quickly.
"If they can reduce costs, that's going to be a benefit to me in the long run," said Jim Smyers, 49, of Glen Allen, Va., who bought his US Airways ticket to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., online and used an electronic kiosk although there was no line on a recent Friday morning at Richmond International Airport. It was only because the kiosk ran out of paper that Smyers had to briefly deal with an agent.
"I use self-checkout at Home Depot, too," said Jane Farver, a 56-year-old art curator from Boston, who admitted feeling "a little guilty" that her embrace of online booking and electronic check-in was helping to put travel agents and airline employees out of work.
Change takes time
Even those who admire this new direction the industry is headed, in which passengers are encouraged to pick where they sit and bring their own food, say all this independence takes some getting used to.
"I never think to buy a meal before I get on a plane," Brian Evison, a 56-year-old management consultant, said after checking in electronically at Reagan National Airport in Washington.
Of course, some creatures of habit resist these changes as best they can.
"I'm old school," said John Elkins, a 41-year-old medical supplies salesman from Atlanta, who put back a couple of Bloody Marys while waiting for a flight out of Richmond. A frequent flier with Delta Air Lines who has earned "gold" status, Elkins books his excursions through a travel agent.
Elkins also likes to check in the traditional way -- as a frequent flier, the lines are usually short -- although he admits to using kiosks when agents get backed up during peak periods.
Airline executives say customers who prefer dealing with an agent will always have that option. But the industry is certainly doing everything it can to convert them: Carriers are offering bonus frequent-flier miles for people who buy tickets or check-in online, and they're pulling agents from behind counters to steer passengers toward the kiosks the moment they get to the airport.
"We want that to be the primary way customers interface with us," said Al Lenza, Northwest Airlines' vice president of distribution and e-commerce.
Lenza said nearly two-thirds of Northwest's domestic passengers now get their boarding passes online or at airport kiosks, and the company already is reducing the incentives it dangled to get people to try the self-serve options.
Airlines had deployed kiosks about 20 years ago in some Northeast shuttle markets, but the effort failed largely because the technology was difficult to use (requiring keyboards, as opposed to touch screens) and fliers were not nearly as comfortable with computers as they are today, said Robert Mann, an industry consultant based in Port Washington, N.Y.
Higher computer literacy, better hardware and software and the ubiquity of e-tickets have made it much easier for today's fliers to adopt self check-in.
But it is not just technological advances that have smoothed the transition to automation.
With boarding passes required to go through security checkpoints at most airports and extra time spent on searches of shoes and bags, passengers have become more receptive to changes that make the rest of their airport experience more efficient, Mann said.
And from the airlines' perspective, financial troubles have given them the incentive to do whatever it takes to make automated processes work.
"It has great prospects for reducing the amount of agents employed," and it could also reduce the amount of space carriers need at airports, Mann said.
Delta has spent about $31 million on new hardware and software used at airports and the airline estimates this investment will ultimately save $235 million a year.
With 800 kiosks in about 80 cities, Delta says almost 100,000 people per day, or 40 percent of its passengers, check themselves in. The Atlanta-based carrier wouldn't specify how many fewer agents will be needed in the future, but said those who remain will spend more time on complex transactions and other duties.
For example, Delta has installed new flight information monitors around boarding areas to give fliers up-to-the-minute details about weather, schedule changes and seat availability.
Expansion on way
By early 2004, several airlines will extend electronic check-in to some international travelers by enabling them to swipe their passports through kiosks. At least one carrier will have subway-like turnstiles at gates, giving passengers the power to board themselves, according to Kinetics Inc., a Lake Mary, Fla.-based provider of airport technology whose clients include Continental Airlines, Delta and Northwest.
Kinetics and other technology companies, including IBM, also have begun putting self-serve kiosks in hotels, and they're developing "common use" machines that will allow customers to manage flights, hotels and car rentals from a variety of suppliers.
"Why shouldn't you be able to do all that?" said Monte Ford, American Airlines' chief information officer.
"If you pervade your environment with self-service," Ford said, "it gives the customers the feeling that they own the trip, that they own the itinerary and that they're not at the mercy of some airline."