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End of the line for long lines?

Northwest introduces new technology to eliminate the wait

In this story:

The agent comes to you

Self-serve airport kiosks


March 9, 2000
Web posted at: 2:17 p.m. EST (1917 GMT)

(CNN) -- Ask travelers their biggest complaint about airports and they'll probably tell you: waiting in line.

Airlines say they cannot do anything about the throngs lining up to get through metal detectors, nor can they do much to make the long queues move faster at the pizza places that cater to people between flights.

But, increasingly, carriers say, they can do something about the lines of people waiting to board planes. More airlines these days are relying on technological innovations to ease the queue crunch.

Northwest Airlines says it's trying to relieve that problem with three new technologies, including one that lets you print a boarding pass from a personal computer.

The airline plans to become the first major carrier in the United States to offer Internet check-in. That would allow customers who book online to change or confirm seat assignments, access upgrades and print out a boarding pass on a PC -- before heading to the airport. Caveat: this is only for travelers who don't need to check luggage.


Travelers will cheer such changes, predicts Chris McGinnis, an industry analyst and manager of

"Surveys show the thing travelers hate most is having to stand in line," McGinnis says. "Typically, one of the lines you have to stand in is the line to get your boarding pass, so this eliminates that. Basically the only line you'll have to stand in -- if you print your own boarding pass -- is the line to show your photo ID at the gate."

Northwest may be in the lead among the big airlines to innovate with Internet check-in, but it's not the pioneer. A smaller carrier, Alaska Airlines, first offered the program in November.

Northwest is to begin testing the Internet check-in program with a few corporate clients next week, and hopes to expand it to all customers by 2001. Rivals Delta and Continental say they're considering Internet check-in as well.

The agent comes to you

When weather wreaks havoc with flight schedules, Northwest plans to roll out another initiative, the Rebook Hotline. It's a portable bank of phones that lets passengers on canceled flights connect with the first available reservations agent.

Airports at Minneapolis/St. Paul, Detroit and Memphis are testing the hotlines.

How would you feel about the ticket agent coming to you when long lines form? That's a plan Northwest has brewing with its Portable Agent Workstations (PAW). In this pilot program, ticket agents use handheld devices -- they resemble those that car-rental agents use -- to check in passengers and print boarding passes.

"Any type of line that gets overly long, we can move the check-in capability to where that particular flight is ... and that's the beauty of it," says Dirk McMahon, vice president of ground operations for Northwest.

Self-serve airport kiosks

McMahon also is touting self-service kiosks at the airport called E-Service Centers. With the swipe of a credit card, they allow passengers to make reservations, print boarding passes and get information on cancellations or delays. Some machines even allow baggage check-in.

By June, the airline plans to increase the number of machines, from 114 to 250, at 35 airports.

Delta is still testing its version of the kiosk in the Northeastern United States. But Continental, which introduced the concept five years ago, says its program is soaring. The carrier recently upgraded its machines to offer faster service and a Spanish-language option.

The kiosks help provide better customer service because they free more employees to do different jobs, McMahon says.

"We've been able to take some of the labor associated with the E-Service centers," he says, "and redeploy it to fund people to staff our Portable Agent Workstations and provide backfill for absenteeism."

That's a line travelers like to hear.

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