Integrated air travel

The Economist has an interesting article on the coming optimization of airline processes, to make travel easier. Most of this is stuff that travellers have known for quite a while – self-service kiosks, electronic tickets, and check-in via mobile telephone. A more substantial investment (both in terms of equipment and procedural changes) is RFID for luggage handling. This will take longer time, and RFID technology will have to improve quite a bit. The article mentions 95% accuracy RFID tag reading in transportation settings, but a large company I talked to said it was more in the neighbourhood or 80-90%, that is, the same as unassisted bar codes and nowhere near what is necessary for accurate large-scale luggage handling.
That will change, of course. The main way forward, as the article points out, lies in standardization and interlinking – making all airlines use these technologies. Wonderful for the traveller, but it erodes the potential for differentiation. But that potential has probably disappeared already, since most of the large airlines, at least those within functioning alliances, have the technologies anyway.
The article briefly touches on the real problem of airline travel: The interlinking to procedures and services not provided by airlines. The high-speed train to the airport which requires you to queue through a moronically designed ticket reader (try Gardermoen in Oslo, where the train does 200km/h and then leaves you waiting for 5 minutes to get off the concourse), the taxi service (which in many countries, notably the US and China, still don’t take credit cards) and the various public control activities will need to be streamlined and interlinked as well.
A few years ago, when I travelled frequently to the US, I had a wonderful thing called the INSpass, which was a biometric identification system (hand geometry) that would get me into the US in less than two minutes. I walked up to the INSpass kiosk, pulled an electronic card through, typed in how long I would stay, put my hand on the hand reader, got a receipt I put in my passport and I was on my way. Wonderful, and if my technological insticts don’t totally underserve me, at least as secure and accurate as a manual check by an agent, electronic passport or not. The upshot was that I was through immigration in no time flat, and, with only carry-on luggage, could make my connection to Boston two hours ahead of my original booking.
Airlines cut costs and improve accuracy by using electronic identification. I just wich public control services would do the same thing. The INSpass was brilliant – I spent 45 minutes getting it, and saved many hours using it. I just wish the US Immigration office would revive it – and that many other public control organizations would look at the INSpass and realize that it is a lot easier to sell increased control to travellers by offering convenience than an increasingly threadbare offer of more security from terrorists.
Integration within airlines will help. Integration outside airlines is even better, but the benefits of the integation have to show through to the individual traveller.
And while we are at it – as a friend of mine once wondered, how come we carry our luggage until we are almost on the airplane, then drop it off on a conveyor belt that feeds into an incredibly expensive mechanism to take the bag the last 500 meters to the plane? Why not let us drop the bag off closer to home – or have us carry it all the way out to the plane? I am aware of the need for load balancing before loading the plane, but you could do that calculation at the gate, you could also get your luggage at the gate when you leave. This would reduce the wear and tear and theft that comes with moving luggage around on big airports, for instance. Of course, you would still need the conveyor system for transfers, but still….. Seing your bag leaving the plane on a conveyor belt as you disembark and knowing that you will see it again, if you are lucky, after 20 minutes deep in the not particularly friendly bowels of whatever airport you are at does not give the impression of a well integrated service. But I ramble…..
Change is in the air. But not really – what is happening so far has a strong whiff of speeding up the mess. And that, of course, is marginally useful.

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