The travails of travel: people-less airlines

I've flown infrequently enough in the last year that every time I make a trip, airport/airline procedures have changed so drastically I have to bumble my way through a new set of convoluted check-in/security procedures that leave me wondering if it wouldn't have been simpler and cheaper (and often, faster) to have gone by car.

To further confound me, these procedures vary drastically from one airport to another and one airline to another.

What seems consistent, though, is that every airline is doing everything possible to eliminate every vestige of humankind in their systems. It was not so long ago, at the Memphis airport, that one walked into the main terminal to be greeted by a football field-long check-in counter, teeming with agents — real people! — who sold tickets, checked in travelers, issued boarding passes, took bags and sent them off on a conveyor belt, gave gate/flight details, and were generally helpful in many ways.

On my most recent trip to San Antonio for the Beltwide Cotton Conferences, the check-in counters were as sparsely populated as the OK Corral just before the big gunfight. There were maybe five actual agents in sight, who were merely servants of an array of electronic terminals directing them to perform ID checks, affix baggage tags, etc.

Passengers no longer interact with real people. They are encouraged to purchase tickets and get flight information/boarding passes via the Internet. If they don't, they're expected to do it at the airport, using electronic terminals.

On my return from San Antonio, the lone actual human behind the counter doing the grunt work for the machines, managed 30 seconds or so of conversation while strapping on baggage tags so I could schlep my luggage to where it could be scanned by yet more machines that cost umpty zillion dollars each. Our interchange went something like this:

Me: “They've really changed up things — all these electronic doodads. One never knows what to expect any more.”

She (with wan smile): “Yes. We're told the passengers really like them.”

Me (glancing toward a nearby couple growing increasingly exasperated, trying to operate one of the terminals, while the line behind grew longer and longer): “They really and truly like this sort of thing?”

She: “That's what the airline tells us.” (Nudge-nudge, wink-wink.)

Me: “Yeah, sure. You and I both know they're doing it to eliminate employees and save money. Where have all your other agents gone?”

She: “I'm not allowed to comment on that.”

Next time I go there, she too will probably have been replaced by a machine that spits out baggage tags that I'll have to affix myself. An electronic scanner will verify my ID.

It is but a matter of time, I'm convinced, that the only humans the airlines have will be those who service the machines that will be doing everything, including flying the airplanes. You laugh, but late-generation aircraft are already so technically advanced it is possible to take off, fly, and land them electronically.

Welcome to the Brave New World…

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