I went to a really lovely wedding in Seattle this weekend that required me to take lots of uncomfortable and inconvenient flights: a six a.m. flight, two layovers in O’Hare, and a redeye. Ugh. Flying nowadays is miserable. First, you feel that you’re being squeezed for every penny. You have to pay for food on most flights. Some airlines make you buy headphones. You have to pay an extra $39 on United to get an Exit row. On other airlines, you have to pay just to pick your seat, or to get a non-middle seat! I actually sucked up and paid the $40 for “Economy Plus” so I could get off the plane first and make my flight (ridiculous 25 minute layover in Chicago), but this shouldn’t have been something that cost me extra money.
But what made me the most irritated was watching people while I was waiting in line at 4 a.m. at LaGuardia to check into my 6 a.m. flight. United there has eliminated customer service representatives for all but first class and paper ticket holders (and remember, paper tickets cost extra these days). This means everyone has to use the eTicket checkin kiosks. Now, I love those kiosks, don’t take me wrong. They take about 1/8th as long to use, you can pick your seat and print everything yourself and take care of it all without involving anyone else, and I never check luggage so it’s a good way for me to sneak my giant rolly cart onto the plane without being harassed about checking it. But I am 29 and a technologist.
There were about 6 people in the paper ticket line, all men and women in their late 60′s, I’d say. They were very uncomfortable using the kiosks and wanted to talk to a customer service representative. They had eticket printouts and didn’t understand why those weren’t considered paper tickets – they are paper, after all! The United representatives would not talk to them, wouldn’t really even look at them, and just kept repeating that they had to use the kiosks. BAD CUSTOMER SERVICE!
You *have* to give your customers the option to use traditional service. First, it’s no big for people in their 20s and 30s who are used to everything changing every six months anyway, but for older people, or just people who aren’t comfortable with computers, using automated kiosks and the like can be confusing and stressful. I was telling my friends about this, and several of them said that their grandparents had never used computers (This is the same reason I hate the new federal prescription drug laws, which require elderly people to advocate for themselves and encourage using the internet for research, when these are the exact populations who can’t advocate for themselves and who aren’t comfortable using the internet, often because the site or application they’re using isn’t designed for people with poor eyesight or the inability to type or whatever) and would not be comfortable using kiosks.
Second, the kiosks do not offer accessibility options such as text magnification or varying input options. It’s not like differently abled people don’t fly on airplanes!
Third, cutting service jobs to cut costs = unhappy passengers, customers and employees. The few human service reps were overloaded and stressed out. They were constantly having to explain why they couldn’t talk to an eticket holder. The passengers were upset. And I’m sure the airline has cut service jobs at least 50% since introducing the eTicket kiosk. Bad all-around experience.
It’s the same way I feel about automated voicemail systems that invoke apoplyptic rage upon failing to recognize your 100th pleas to talk to a representative. I’ve almost thrown my cell across a room rather than deal with Sprint’s terrible automated service. And as much as I love the automatic grocery checkout machines, they will be used mostly to keep costs down by limiting service jobs. Overall, I do not believe that mass adoption of these machines is a utilitarian solution, in terms of what is the best solution for the largest number of people.
Automated service technology can be a good solution for some problems, but it is not a universal solution. And it is not a reason to cut jobs and underserve specific populations of customers. I know the airlines are in major crisis, especially with fuel prices, but shitty customer service doesn’t help anyone. It’s why I’ve basically stopped flying on AirTrans and some of the really low-budget airlines. United was okay otherwise. And at least it’s not Southwest.