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Intelligent Machines

The Zen of Airport Kiosks

Technology’s gift of mindlessness and painlessness.

There was absolutely no way I would make my flight. The Heathrow Express had been late, and British Airways’ check-in lines were shockingly long. The queues were filled with shrieking children, steamer trunks, and tourists with zero sense of urgency. I was toast.

Jumping the queue was impossible. Pleading for preferential treatment seemed a nonstarter: too American. I looked for help. There, sitting ignored amid the madding crowd, was a machine.

It was a newly installed British Airways automated ticketing kiosk. No waiting. I scurried over and stuck in my American Express card. Seconds later, my name and flight to Munich popped up on-screen. Four or five more touch-screen taps and I was sprinting to security, clutching my boarding pass and receipt. The door closed behind me the moment I boarded my flight.

This story is part of our January 2005 Issue
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The Star Wars actress and novelist Carrie Fisher once observed that “instant gratification takes too long.” For business travelers trapped in airport queues, Fishers aphorism is no joke. What makes airport ticketing kiosks such godsends is that they are engineered around the two strongest desires of business travelers arriving at the airport: to be mindless and to feel no pain.

Mindlessness is a mantra for every Executive Platinum flier. You dont want to actually think. You just want to do it and be done with it. Immediately. Continental Airlines’ mean time for automated check-in is 66 seconds. You only have carry-on bags? Barely 30 seconds.

As a promoter of mindlessness, the ticketing kiosk’s superi­ority to the ATM is obvious. With an ATM, you think about how much money you need and how much you actually have. In contrast, an ATK (airline ticketing kiosk) presents you with choices you either have already made (your itinerary) or don’t need to think about (are you carrying any firearms onto your flight?).

Simply swiping a credit card or frequent-flier card into the appropriate slot creates touch-screen requests requiring little effort to answer. There are, sadly, irksome exceptions. American Airlines, for instance, asks you to enter the name of your destination, something American’s computers should surely know. Just display what you have on file, damn it, instead of making me enter LGA or ORD.

Which leads us to a critical distinction between mindlessness and painlessness. The Zen state of ATK interaction occurs when mindlessness and painlessness are one: the flier need neither think nor feel to get his or her ticket. An avoidable choice is an on-screen request for information that the flier knows the airline knows, but which the airline is too lazy or incompetent to bake into its ATK. Avoidable choices – having to tell the machine my frequent-flier number or my destination – require both thought and feeling (irritation). Happily, Southwest’s no-frills ATK interactions permit the traveler to enter a perfect state of satori.

Where perfect mindlessness and painlessness are not pos­sible, good ATK design allows a choice between the two. The cleverest example of this is the ATK seat map. A large number of airlines, including Alaska, American, and Continental, show you a color-coded chart and invite you to change your assignment by touching a seat. One doesn’t mindlessly choose a different seat, of course, but the ability to procure another seat is made painless. 

Even the most unctuous ticketing agents can’t do that. Human agents are awful at creating mindlessness and painlessness, and increasingly uncompetitive at offering travelers choices. Superior service, not automated ticketing, is the crux of the ATK’s value. On a systems level, the rise of the ATK says far less about ruthless “reductions in force” and more about airlines’ desires to mass-produce just-in-time convenience.

And yet, I never would have caught my flight if there had been a queue for British Airways’ ATK. I prospered because of others’ ignorance. Tomorrow’s Heathrow will be less forgiving.

I fret that downtime or demand will create queues in front of ticketing machines as unendurably long as those for human agents. I shudder at the thought of flying families burdened by bouncy tots and bulging bags huddling over the ATK for 10 minutes at a time trying to use the seat map to figure out how theyll all manage to sit together on the flight. I know in my heart that they’ll be standing in front of me in line at Logan Airport. After all, some forms of mindlessness cannot be conquered.

Will there be ATKs that discriminate between frequent fliers and the masses? Or ATKs that accept only platinum cards? Or charge an extra $5 per ticket to service the cash rich but convenience starved? Please!

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