Robots vs. Humans in the Air Travel Industry

Published by Rick Seaney at July 3, 2012

If your most recent experience with robots is David from Prometheus, you haven't been to the airport lately. Or on a plane.

Do-It-Yourself Bag-Tagging

We're seeing robots – or automation, if you prefer – in all walks of life, and now the air travel industry has taken up the cause with a vengeance partly for convenience but also to save money on those all-too-expensive human beings. Some good examples from the past year or so:

1. Self-bag tagging

Kiosks at Sea-Tac airport in Washington now do the work of skycaps – you show an ID, receive bag tags and affix them to your luggage. Actually a human does the final step: tossing the bag on the conveyor belt. According to a press release from Alaska Airlines which offers the DIY option, passengers are "delighted" with it (but remember, that is coming from a press release).

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2. Do-it-yourself boarding

Yes, again with the kiosks. Instead of handing over your boarding pass to the gate agent for scanning, you do it yourself – then give yourself permission to board the plane. At least that's how it's supposed to work and Delta says its experiments with this at Las Vegas' McCarran and Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson airports have been a success, and it should be noted that 17 other airlines already do this in Europe and Asia.
[Keep reading for more]

3. Robotic plane parking

This was recently demonstrated at the newly refurbished Terminal 3 at the Las Vegas airport, and it works like this: pilots can now rely on a laser system to guide the aircraft to its parking spot at the gate, instead of following the movements of the grounds crew holding those orange signal sticks. Other airports are either experimenting with this or already have it in place.

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4. Robotic FAQ specialists

JFK, LaGuardia and Newark will introduce Ava the avatar this summer – a life-size plexi-glass "woman" who speaks and will answer simple questions. At Boston's Logan International, you can visit Carla, a hologram who'll help with security questions.

You've seen something similar on websites for a while now: Alaska has "Ask Jenn" while United directs your questions to "Alex." Brave new world, indeed.

More from Rick Seaney:

Airports Have Fewer Human Workers

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