Airlines invest in DIY to improve passenger services

Airlines invest in DIY to improve passenger services

The days of being stuck waiting in a long queue to drop off your suitcase at the airport could soon disappear as airlines step up attempts to automate the check-in process.

While self check-in has been around for years, airlines are now investing in more do-it-yourself options that could enable travellers to arrive at the airport with their bags already tagged and ready to drop off with no assistance from staff.

Several airlines, including British Airways, are trialling permanent electronic bag tags that would remove the need for a new paper label each time a passenger flies.

Once a traveller checks in online, they would be able to hold their smartphone over the electronic bag tag, which would update with a barcode containing their flight details. This tag could then be quickly scanned at the self-service bag drop before the passenger heads through security.

BA, the British carrier owned by International Airlines Group, is planning to launch its digital bag tags next year, following further trials.

“A lot of airlines are experimenting with electronic bag tags. We would like to see the technology become ubiquitous and as cheap as $4 to $5 so that people could buy as many as they want,” says Paul Behan, director of passenger at Iata, the main trade body for the world’s airlines.

Mr Behan says one of the benefits of an electronic tag is that it can be updated remotely if there is any disruption on the route, ensuring that the tag will have the new flight details.

Electronic bag tags were first launched by Australian carrier Qantas Airways in 2010, and are also being tested by Air-France and Turkish Airlines. However, this technology and others — such as self-service bag drops and wifi — has been slow to take off as airlines have focused on more urgent capital investments.

“Aviation is an industry which has incredibly tight margins. So when the return on capital is so challenging are you going to spend money on this versus buying X-amount of aircraft?” says Jonathan Keane of Oliver Wyman, the management consultancy.

However, with profits improving — this year the industry is forecast to generate the strongest profit margins since the mid-1960s — airlines are looking at ways to improve the customer experience — and at the same time cut costs further.

London Gatwick Airport has already revealed plans to create the world’s largest self-service bag drop zone as part of its £1bn investment to redevelop the North Terminal.

EasyJet, the low-cost airline, has 12 self-service bag drops at Gatwick but plans to increase this to about 60 by the end of 2016 when the redevelopment is complete, according to Sophie Dekkers, director of UK at easyJet.

According to the SITA baggage report, only 9 per cent of airlines offer fully self-service baggage drops. It predicts this will rise to 70 per cent by the end of 2017.

A lot of airlines are experimenting with electronic bag tags. We would like to see the technology become ubiquitous and as cheap as $4 to $5 so that people could buy as many as they want.

– Paul Behan, director of passenger at Iata, the airline trade body

Several airlines are already offering travellers the option of printing their bag tags at home. Swiss International, Lufthansa, Air France, Iberia and Alaska Airlines are just a few of the carriers that allow passengers to do this on selected routes.

But widespread implementation of home-printed bag tags in Europe has been hampered by concerns surrounding the green stripe that has to be included on tags issued inside the EU, to make them easily identifiable from bags coming from outside of the bloc.

Iata is starting a trial within the EU from the end of September that looks to address some of these concerns. Travellers will be required to print the tag in colour so that the green stripe is still clear, but over time the trade group hopes to work with the EU to either eliminate or replace the green stripe with another mechanism to identify bags from within the EU.

Airlines are also having to deal with some regulatory barriers that affect the rollout of self-service bag drops. In the UK, the government’s Triple A requirement means that identity checks are required to ensure it is the owner of the bag checking it in. Mr Behan says Iata is working with the Department for Transport to review whether the rule could be changed. “One of the options we are looking at is biometric identification,” he says.

The benefit is not just reserved for customers. Initiatives such as self-service bag drops and electronic tags can help airlines cut staff costs and at the same time boost revenues.

By automating the bag drop off process, airlines can gain extra revenues through improved compliance with excess baggage charges. It could also help reduce the number of staff needed at the airport, with just one person attending several self-service bag drop kiosks — similar to how supermarkets operate their self-service check outs.

However, Mr Keane at Oliver Wyman believes airlines will still have to manage staffing for days of irregular operations, such as when there is an unexpected problem, such as the power cut at Heathrow airport this month.

“It can certainly be a contributor to driving down cost but does it mean you can have a staffless terminal? I don’t think it does,” he says.

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