Learning to Fly

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It's the time of year when my travel schedule picks up. I’m looking at about a half-dozen flights from now through February, and my hair already hurts thinking about all those lovely airport experiences.

Doing a fair amount of both business and leisure travel I try to optimize technology as best as I can to make travel easier. In so many ways, things are better then they were when I first started covering this industry two-plus decades ago.

Online booking and check-in has been a godsend. My overpriced local car service guy has been replaced by Uber. I can stay in touch with my family and office with in-flight Wi-Fi, and I can watch whatever movie I want on my tablet, rendering those terribly fuzzy airplane drop-down screens moot. Airbnb and VRBO have released me from the shackles of generic hotel chains.

So why am I dreading all this travel? Because despite all the high-tech workarounds, air travel in general hasn’t changed at all in 25 years. Oh wait, yes it has. It’s gotten a lot worse.

The seats are smaller, the added fees are endless, the free meals have gone away, security lines have gotten worse, and my fellow travelers, who have noticed the same things, are crankier than ever. Did I mention the seats are smaller?

So I asked myself: Why hasn’t technology improved the customer experience of flying as it has every other aspect of travel?

With this column in mind, I asked that question to a friend of mine, Paul, who works in the airline industry, and he practically screamed at me: “What are you talking about!?! Technology has improved travel immensely!”

So I asked him to explain. He named a number of things I hadn’t thought of:

● Apps: Every major airline and hotel chain now has an app that allows you to book a flight or room, check-in electronically, receive instant push notifications when there is a delay or your room is ready, and make special requests without having to talk to a person (my favorite type of transaction).

● RFID bag tracking: Most major airlines now use RFID technology to track every piece of luggage from the time you check them in until you pick them up. No more lost bags. True, sometimes a bag gets routed incorrectly, but that’s mostly due to human error, and at least if my bag ends up in Denver while I land in Las Vegas, I’ll know that I will be instantly notified when my bag catches up to me.

● Big data: Some major airports are now using fairly sophisticated data analysis to predict when security lines will be most crowded. Some of them will even send you a text when you arrive at the airport with an approximate wait time. Yes, you still have to wait but at least you know what you’re getting into, and most of the airports that use this kind of technology will deploy more resources at peak times to relieve the stress on the system. Orlando and Phoenix were the first to deploy this. (Please, God, let Newark be next.)

● Self check-in: Splitting up those travelers who don’t need help checking in, or who are willing to self-check their bags, shortens lines and gets more people through the gate faster.

You know what? Paul is right. And he promised me more improvements to come, all technology-based, including 3D facial recognition at security checkpoints, personal airport navigation apps, and ticket bots that can scan ever-changing airline ticket prices and automatically book you based on the parameters you enter.

Lesson learned. Sometimes technological advancements are so incremental they are not immediately noticed or appreciated, but in the end we are better off today than we were yesterday, in a lot of ways, because of the constant flow of innovation. Now if they’d only make the seats bigger.

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