Airlines to slash costs with self-service airports

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The Independent Online

It was a familiar experience for the two million Britons who flew off for an Easter break this weekend - hour-long queues at airports, wrestling with heavy bags and interminable delays in the departure lounge.

It was a familiar experience for the two million Britons who flew off for an Easter break this weekend - hour-long queues at airports, wrestling with heavy bags and interminable delays in the departure lounge.

But these days will soon be over. Airlines are introducing the ultimate in efficiency - the self-service airport.

In the future, passengers will be able to cut hours off their journeys as well as saving the airline industry billions of pounds a year in staff wages and costs.

People will buy their tickets online, check-in before they leave the house or use automated kiosks in the airport to print off their boarding cards. Bags will then be weighed at self-service machines and given a "smart" tag that can be tracked by radio, then handed over at a "fast-drop" baggage desk.

The airlines are desperate for new ways to cut costs after three years of recession for the industry. In the wake of the World Trade Centre attacks in 2001, the Sars epidemic and the tsunami earlier this year, airlines have lost £19bn.

British Airways already gives its passengers flying within Britain the chance to buy their tickets online, choose their seats hours in advance and use their home computers to print off their boarding cards.

It plans to introduce the same "self-service flying" system for overseas passengers using Heathrow this summer. Other major airlines are following suit, including Virgin Atlantic, which now uses home computer check-in for its flights to the US, South Africa and the Far East.

Easyjet is slowly introducing self-service, automated kiosks for passengers to collect their tickets and boarding cards at its 60 European airports, after successfully testing them last year at East Midlands airport.

Ultimately, the airlines claim, the process will become even easier - using bar codes as tickets and radio-tracking for bags. Only passing through the security checks and passport control will still involve the human touch.

They are planning to introduce a system where air tickets are replaced by individual bar codes for each passenger - scrapping the familiar old system of six-page paper tickets with their carbon-paper inserts.

Baggage tags will be replaced by new "smart tags" that each have tiny chips in them that can be tracked by radio - a technique which should speed up baggage handling and see an end to lost and mislaid luggage.

Airline industry executives admit these new techniques will slash their costs. By 2007, every ticket will be an "e-ticket" issued either by computer or through self-service kiosks - a measure which will cut costs by 90 per cent. Worldwide, that alone will cut airline costs by £1.5bn a year.

But there are risks with the self-service airport. The International Air Transport Association, the largest of the industry bodies, admits that airlines will have to prepare for a computer collapse or massive technical failure that could leave thousands of passengers stranded.

"It's all about risk assessment, about developing the necessary plans to see what happens if we lose power in a whole airport," said Mike Feldman, IATA's passenger services director.

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