Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Airline agents go mobile with handheld devices
7/7/2010 6:50 AM


Airline agents are increasingly going mobile at airports, with tools in hand to help passengers — and eventually help sell them something.

The largest U.S. carriers, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, plan to expand their mobile workforce equipped with handheld devices that agents use to check flights and issue bag tags and boarding passes. They'll soon be able to sell passengers items or get them to pay for oversize bags that shouldn't have cleared security.

The practice is already entrenched at some airports in Asia, says Gregory Ouillon of aviation technology firm SITA. But it's catching on in the U.S. as counters and kiosks have gotten more crowded.

Airlines say the mobile devices help boost service and cut down on long lines. They also put a human face on service after the industry worked for years to automate check-in and cut labor costs.

The airlines' automated approach is succumbing to their desire to sell passengers ancillary services from seat upgrades to food or movies, Ouillon says.

"(Airlines) are asking, 'Shouldn't I introduce a human touch point to ancillary services?' " he says. "A number of airlines are looking at not just queue-busting, but maximizing opportunities for up-sale."

American agents with mobile devices were introduced last year in Boston and have been expanded to Dallas/Fort Worth, Albuquerque, Chicago O'Hare, New York JFK, New York LaGuardia, Miami, St. Louis and San Juan, Puerto Rico. The plan is to eventually assign them at every gate, says spokeswoman Stacey Frantz.

Last month, the devices were upgraded to print boarding passes, beyond just providing flight and gate information, displaying maps of other airports and printing bag tags. The machines will evolve to allow customers "to make upgrade purchases and other bundled offerings," Frantz says.

Delta introduced agents with mobile devices last year, too, and has since increased the number of devices to 900 units used at all domestic airports.

The devices can print boarding passes, assign seats and check in passengers that have just carry-ons. They can give flight status, add customers to standby and print ground-transportation information and meal vouchers. Agents also use them to board flights at gates, says Tricia Soulimiotis of Delta.

This year, Delta plans to add more functions: checking in passengers with bags to check, rebooking flights, swiping passports for international passengers, and handling credit card transactions for purchases and payments. Passengers who've cleared security but whose bags should have been checked will be asked to pay bag-check fees.

JetBlue has been using handheld devices on board since 2007 to accept payments from customers buying pillows, blankets, beer and wine.

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