I Have Glimpsed the Future of Commercial Aviation. There Were Fewer Workers There.

Even though it seems Lufthansa has had its ‘Quick Boarding’ gates up and running since 2003, today was the first time I experienced one. In order to board my flight from Munich to Warsaw I scanned the two-dimensional bar code on my boarding pass (which I’d printed out at home). A subway station-style gate opened, and I walked down the jetway.

There was a single human agent at the gate, but she was not involved at all with me as I got on the plane; she stayed behind the podium and didn’t get anywhere close to me or my boarding pass.

When I mentioned this on Twitter someone tweeted back about security concerns, but I don’t see what they would be. I’d already passed through passport control in Munich (my trip started in Boston), and my baggage and person had been screened. I’ve flown a lot, but have never seen the person checking boarding passes at the gate do anything related to security. They just stand there at the gate doing the same thing over and over and repeating some version of ‘have a good flight.’

A Lufthansa spokesperson interviewed for a USA Today story says that “the airline’s primary goal was to free agents from the mundane task of scanning boarding passes [and free] them to handle other customer issues that require individual attention, such as upgrading seats.”

I believe that, but I have a little more trouble with the claim that “The number of agents assigned to automated gates isn’t different from other gates: one or two agents for short-haul flights, three or four for longer ones.” On my flight there was one, not two. A 50% difference is a pretty big one, and I have trouble believing that the airlines don’t look at more automated boarding processes as a way to have higher labor productivity.

Which is exactly what they should be doing. Higher productivity + competition mean that prices charged to customers will do down, which is great news for all of us who fly. And maybe I’m weird and antisocial, but I actually preferred the automated boarding process.

I don’t shrink from all human interaction (despite what my friends, family, and loved ones say [rim shot]), but I really don’t like the completely soulless and pro forma ones. I’d rather not hear “have a nice flight,” “I’m sorry to hear that you’re experiencing difficulties with our service,” “my name’s Dave and I’ll be taking care of you guys tonight” and so on at all if they’re going to be delivered in a robotic monotone.

People are extraordinary communicators and connectors, and highly adaptive and flexible ones. Let’s figure out ways to put these abilities to good use rather than continuing to use them in the kinds of routine tasks that technology is better suited for.