Airports Have Fewer Human Workers

PHOTO: Alaska Airlines Self Tag Check-In kioskCourtesy Alaska Airlines
Alaska Airlines fliers have the option to check and tag their own bags when flying out of Sea-Tac airport in Seattle.

I love digging up old predictions about the future. Did you know that as recently as 1948, TV was proclaimed a passing fad? As an air-travel columnist, my favorite is Lord Kelvin's 1895 pronouncement that, "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible."

Once in a while, though, the old forecasts get it right, as the editors of National Geographic magazine did when they enthused, "Someday, robots will take over from humans as the dominant creatures on Earth."

If you want proof, just go to the airport.

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Maybe "robots" isn't the right terminology in every case so substitute artificial intelligence or computers or automation but essentially, robotic-type machines are taking over all kinds of airport jobs. Let's start with the skycaps.

Some of these hard-working fellows are still at curbside ready to sling your bags and check you in, but you might noticed fewer of them thanks to layoffs and outsourcing. Who's taking over? In some cases, automation. Fly Alaska Airlines out of Sea-Tac airport and while you can still check a bag the traditional way -- via skycap or airline agent -- there's now another option: do-it-yourself.

DIY bag-tagging means going to a kiosk, showing ID, getting a printed-out bag tag, attaching it to your luggage, then dropping the bag off with a human who then dumps it on a conveyor belt. Alaska's news release says, "Customers who have used the service are delighted to be able to help themselves," which seems a stretch (delighted?) but it might be quicker and more convenient. And with fewer wage-earning, benefits-demanding humans to worry about, it's cheaper for the airlines, too. And that's the point.

Here's more: You already know about those check-in/boarding pass-printing kiosks. That's old school, just as flashing a boarding pass on a smartphone is. But some airlines are now testing machines to process boarding passes, eliminating the need for gate agents. Delta's done it at the Las Vegas and Atlanta airports where it has been proclaimed a success and, yes, it's another DIY project: You scan your boarding pass and give yourself permission to step aboard.

This does not completely do away with gate agents; presumably, they'll now have more time for urgent tasks like dealing with flight delays and cancelations, but unions aren't thrilled because it does seem as though fewer humans will be necessary. Another criticism I've seen is that some fliers will miss the greeting from the gate agent; I'd miss that too if I'd gotten a greeting lately.

Look for this to become commonplace in U.S. airports within the next few years; something like 17 airlines already use the DIY boarding system in Europe and Asia.

What's next, robotic pilots? Don't laugh; McCarran's new $2.4 billion Terminal 3 in Las Vegas now features an "auto docking" system that uses lasers to guide planes to the gate, eliminating the need for those guys who wave the orange sticks. Some other airports have this too but the final decision on using this guidance system - or, going with the orange stick guys - as always, rests with the human pilot.

It is a brave new world but it shouldn't surprise us. Long before Apple acquired Siri to answer all our questions, the Alaska Airlines website debuted its robotic Q&A expert, "Jenn" and now you can also quiz United's helpful toon-type interface, "Ask Alex."

To be sure, none of them know everything, but if you dig around on an airline website long enough, you'll usually find a phone number that'll connect you to a human. The point is, airlines want you to exhaust all robotic possibilities first.

Then there's Ava the avatar, who was recently unveiled by the New York Port Authority as a greeter who also provides information for passengers traveling through JFK, LaGuardia and Newark (and heaven knows, passengers at those airports can probably use all the help they can get). The life-sized, plastic-glass creation is programmed to "speak in reassuring tones." Fine, but will she find your lost luggage?

Ultimately, such reliance on robotics has its good points and bad, but the real question is where will it end? Which brings me back to those predictions from the start of this column; one that I neglected to mention suggests that by the year 2050, some of us will be, uh, "dating" robots.

I wonder how Ava, Jenn and Alex feel about that.