- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 1, 2000

Major airlines are rushing to install automated check-in kiosks at airports in the Washington area in their bid to keep pace with the competition.

The self-service machines allow passengers who use electronic ticketing to check in, choose seats and board their planes with a few commands on a touch-screen machine. Other passengers still must check in at ticket counters.

The kiosks are the latest technology investment by airlines trying to use high-tech devices as the forefront of their customer-service strategies, most of which are intended to reduce the time it takes to purchase tickets and board airplanes. The airlines are deploying the technologies at a time when Congress is pressuring them to improve service after a rash of consumer complaints.

Delta Air Lines, US Airways and Continental Airlines use the self-service check-in kiosks at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Trans World Airlines also has the kiosks at BWI. US Airways started using kiosks at Reagan National Oct. 5. No airlines use them at Washington Dulles International Airport, although most plan to install them within a year.

The automated kiosks have been around since Continental Airlines installed the first ones in 1995. However, the recent competitive rush results from the sophistication of the second-generation models. IBM and Northrop Grumman are major manufacturers of the machines.

"The software is better, more advanced technology," said Catherine Stengel, Continental Airlines spokeswoman. "Our customers are demanding more control over their travel. It's part of the computer age." Continental operates four of the kiosks at Reagan National and two at BWI.

Russ Williams, Delta Air Lines spokesman, said, "Delta feels it's extremely important to use the latest technology to provide our customers with the best travel experience possible." Delta installed five self-service kiosks at Reagan National last year for service on the Delta Shuttle that runs between Washington, New York City and Boston. The company plans to install additional kiosks at BWI and Dulles within months.

After customers respond to Federal Aviation Administration security questions on the touch-screen machines, the kiosks can print out boarding passes. Customers can choose a "check baggage" option for an expedited baggage check-in. They can select or change seat assignments from a display of seat maps. They also can claim frequent-flier miles and receive business-class upgrades.

"It is an attractive customer option for customers who prefer self-sufficiency and do not want to wait in line," said Chris Brathwaite, United Airlines spokesman. "It's for people who are in a rush and have their credit cards." United has been testing the kiosks at airports in Chicago and San Diego before installing them at airports nationwide.

The kiosks are only one of several high-tech devices airlines are using to up the ante against their competition.

Next on the list for Delta are 40-inch flat screens in waiting areas to give passengers information on meal service, entertainment, boarding time and other issues relevant to their flights, Delta officials said. The airline plans to install them at airports within a few months.

United's other innovations include "mobile chariots," or portable check-in stations. When lines are long, clerks can roll out the mobile chariots to any place they want them and form additional lines to cut wait times. The chariots are linked to the airline's computers with wireless technology that records all ticket transactions and assigns seats.

United also is using its new "Bullseye" baggage scanners. After clerks attach computer-coded tags to baggage, scanners can be used to record the check-in and route the baggage, similar to the way grocery store scanners read the bar codes on food packages. "Anytime you can develop a new product or service that will make things easier for the customer, the marketing takes care of itself," Mr. Brathwaite said. "There's no better marketing than a satisfied customer."

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