Airlines are using more check-in kiosks

Testimonial: "You don't have to pay a kiosk a salary or benefits, and you don't have to listen to it whine about its sore feet. It just sits there, spitting out boarding pass after boarding pass."

November 22, 2003|By THE BOSTON GLOBE

Still recovering from the travel falloff and coping with security measures instituted after the 2001 terrorist attacks, airlines are installing a record number of check-in kiosks this year as they race to make the machines more available to wait-weary passengers and to trim their labor costs.

The machines also are getting more versatile. Kiosks that previously could only print boarding passes can now automatically rebook passengers who have missed flights, let them choose a seat, and spit out coupons that can be redeemed for a beer or headphones onboard.

"The capability of the software will make these stations something that will be increasingly a one-size fits all," said Jim Brown , a spokesman for Kinetics Inc., a Lake Mary, Fla.-based company that builds and installs the machines for 10 airlines. His company expects to install 1,500 of them in 2003, up 50 percent from last year.

Still, kiosks have their drawbacks. Passengers going overseas or checking more than two bags are generally out of luck, doomed to wait in line to see a ticket agent. And because the kiosks have become so prevalent, real, live people behind ticket counters are fewer and farther between, meaning passengers could have a long wait to see one.

Research firm Forrester Research estimates more than 3,000 kiosks are in use nationally.

Spokesmen for four airlines - US Airways, United, Delta, and American - said they've installed more kiosks in 2003 than in any other year. Southwest Airlines has installed 428 terminals this year and plans to add 100 more in 2004.

Passengers who use the machines say the biggest advantage is time saved. Delta spokeswoman Katie Connell said it takes users of that airline's machines less than two minutes to check in at a kiosk on average, compared with an average of 10 minutes to check in with a human being.

"I try to use the kiosk because of the obvious," said Stan Cohn, a businessman from Scotch Plains, N.J. "It's significantly quicker because you do it all yourself and it takes care of all the incidentals for you."

Nikki Brush, from Park City, Utah, said she seeks out kiosks at every airport, regardless of what airline she's flying. But her companion, Sean Rayner, said he's sticking with curbside check-in. "A lot of times, you have to carry your own bags to security after using kiosks," he said. "Skycaps will do that for you."

Kiosks began showing up in airports in the mid-1990s, when passenger traffic exploded and travelers got comfortable with using interactive terminals. A sharp drop in the number of passengers after the Sept. 11 attacks furthered the trend. The machines are one of the only consistent hardware expenditures for the industry in the past three years, said Henry Harteveldt, principal analyst at Forrester Research in San Francisco.

"It costs 16 cents to check in a customer on a kiosk vs. $3.68 to check in a customer through an agent," Harteveldt said. "You don't have to pay a kiosk a salary or benefits, and you don't have to listen to it whine about its sore feet. It just sits there, spitting out boarding pass after boarding pass after boarding pass."

Some do a lot more. In general, passengers can skip the check-in line, swipe a credit or frequent-flier card through a slot on the side of a kiosk, and follow a series of prompts to check-in for their flight. Most machines let travelers check up to two bags and choose their own seats, and some airlines have been adding more advanced features.

Continental's machines let travelers buy coupons for in-flight beverages, while machines for US Airways, Delta, Continental, and United allow passengers to rebook themselves if they've missed flights. In some cases, the machines will automatically rebook a passenger on the next available flight if the first is canceled due to bad weather or mechanical problems.

Still, Harteveldt said, the kiosks' limitations will have to be eliminated if the airlines want them to be truly successful.

"It's really important that people recognize that kiosks will help 80 percent of the people now," he said. "That's not acceptable. Kiosks should be helping 95 percent of the people take care of 95 percent of the things they need to do."

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