Automation of the passenger experience is nothing new for air travellers. It is now possible to book flights, choose seats and meals, check-in, print your boarding pass and drop off baggage, all without the need for interaction with airline and airport staff.
The advantages for both airlines and passengers mean that only two elements of the process now remain solely in human hands; security and boarding. Lufthansa, however, has already rolled out self-boarding gates at its German airports to completely automate the processes that lie under the airline's control.
Saved space and time
The carrier's commitment to the technology is already well established, with second-generation gates currently being installed at several of Lufthansa spokesman larger operations.
"We have self-boarding gates at our two hubs Frankfurt and Munich, plus six more in Germany," says Lufthansa's Jan Baerwalde. "With the recent upgrade of the boarding gates, we have increased the number of people passing through those gates within one minute from 14 to 17 people - an increase of almost 30%," he adds.
This improvement in throughput is significant at airports where space for expansion is limited. As the number of air travellers increases, the need for a timely boarding procedure is more prevalent than ever.
"We expect 5%-6% growth in passenger numbers every year. That means you have a lot more passengers to handle on the one hand, and on the other, at many airports you have just limited facility capacity," agrees Baerwalde. "So we are looking to increase the flow of people passing the boarding gates, and the self-boarding gates give us a lot of advantages there."
Increased throughput is not the only advantage for Lufthansa's staff and customers. Allowing passengers the option of self-boarding will free up Lufthansa staff to better help those who need it.
"There will be the support for passengers who are not used to the system, or who are having problems with it," explains Baerwalde.
The carrier also does not have to increase staffing levels as passenger numbers rise; but as Baerwalde concedes, this does not mean staffing levels won't increase in the future.
"We can handle a lot more passengers without the need to increase the number of employees, but the task the employees will have will be a different one. Not all travellers are frequent flyers, so you will need to give those customers extra guidance. Therefore, we have employees acting as kiosk supporters," he explains. "Staff numbers at our airports have actually increased in the past few years."
Self-boarding is the latest component of Lufthansa's automation process, which also includes the industry standards of check-in and baggage drop, among others. With their widespread use, an automated option is available for every part of a passenger's journey until they reach their seat.
"We really thought about the whole process, from the moment a passenger starts their journey," says Baerwalde.
The only obstacle to Lufthansa's goal of giving travellers the option of complete automation is the security process, which is out of the carrier's hands. "We can improve the check-in side and we can improve the boarding facilities, but we can only give our input to the security. That really is a challenge," admits Baerwalde. "We are talking to the airport operator and border control, but at the moment we can only say 'it should not take you more than x minutes to get through security control' rather than giving them a guarantee."
Gate of independence
Giving customers the option to do things for themselves has proven a popular choice for passengers, especially among business customers.
"Many of our travellers, especially business travellers, are increasingly expecting to be able to do all these things on their own. They want to check-in when they have time, wherever they are in a taxi, in the hotel or in the office," explains Baerwalde. "We have roughly half of our passengers use at least one of the automated processes, which is steadily increasing, and our goal in Germany is to reach 80% within the next two years."
The impersonal touch?
The drive for automation elsewhere in the industry, while strong in processes such as check-in, does not extend as far as self-boarding. Other airlines currently trialling the technology are few and far between, with the US perhaps the slowest to catch on. Currently, only Continental Airlines is testing the gates at Houston airport, despite the technology having been available as early as 2003. This slow take-up is particularly jarring given the ubiquity of other self-service solutions offered by airlines and airport operators.
Perhaps one possible reason for absence of the technology in many airports, particularly in the US, is the perceived loss of security. The final human check of passengers before they board the plane is seen as critical to maintaining security by some industry commentators. However, Lufthansa sees things differently.
"It is very important that we still have employees there to give a feeling of safety, from a psychological perspective," says Baerwalde. By having staff on-hand to man the gates, the perceived lack of security can be alleviated.
The greater challenge for full-service airlines such as Lufthansa is to maintain the personal service that differentiates them from their low-cost counterparts. Automating the whole process removes a lot of the human contact, and this interaction is vital in maintaining the degree of service that passengers expect.
"Some low-cost airlines are doing things differently. But as a quality carrier, we still have to provide that personal service," believes Baerwalde. "Automation doesn't mean you won't see any employees in five or ten years. The type of work will change, and our employees will be there to make sure these passengers get the help they need."
Lufthansa have managed to overcome these difficulties, but what does the future hold for the roll-out of further automated services? In the case of Lufthansa it is clear.
"We really thought about the whole process and asked passengers about their experiences. Concentrating on the whole chain has made it a success. To underline how important the automated processes are to us, at the moment we have 650 kiosks in place at 60 airports worldwide. That's only going to go up," says Baerwalde.
With automated check-in and baggage drop already commonplace throughout the rest of the industry, it remains to be seen how widespread self-boarding becomes. With other airlines beginning to trial the technology, it could soon become the rule, rather than the exception.