SAN FRANCISCO - If the fees charged for paper airline tickets aren't enough to push you to electronic tickets, the chance to avoid long lines at ticket counters may be.
That's what e-ticketed passengers gain from checking themselves in at the self-serve kiosks rapidly sprouting up at airports nationwide, as airlines realize the double boon of saving money and increasing customer satisfaction.
Think ATM redux.
E-ticketed passengers can use the kiosks to check in, select a seat and print out a boarding pass good for getting through security and all the way to the gate - and avoid ticket-agent lines.
"When I go some place, the first airline employee I interact with is the one who checks my boarding pass as I board the plane," said Terry Trippler, an airline expert with CheapSeats- .com and avowed user of self-serve check-in. "I'm not alone. Many people are doing the same thing."
In May, more Northwest Airlines passengers - 50.3 percent - used one of the airlines' self-service options, either a kiosk or the Internet, than went to a live agent to check in. That's up from 34.3 percent in May 2002, and 20.3 percent in May 2001, spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch said.
Eight million Delta Air Lines passengers have used self-serve kiosks this year, more than the 7.8 million of all of last year, and the airline expects this year's total to reach 20 million, company spokesman Anthony Black said.
The airlines are responding to customers' acceptance of the kiosks by adding more. Northwest more than doubled its self-serve stations to 655 kiosks in 155 airports, from about 300 kiosks in 50 airports last August. Delta Air Lines will offer 850 kiosks in 81 airports by Labor Day, almost double the 440 with which it started this year.
Business travelers seeking an efficient travel experience are likely pushing a major portion of that growth, but the convenience is not limited to that group.
Passengers needing to check bags can do so at the self-serve terminals by typing in the number of bags they have, which then prompts a baggage-claim sticker to print and alerts an airline agent to come to the kiosk to collect the bags. Most airlines provide some live agents to serve the kiosk area, experts said.
And some airlines' kiosks give passengers the chance to upgrade tickets, pay extra-baggage fees, log the trip to a frequent-flier account, and avail themselves of other services that otherwise would have meant a trip to the ticket counter. Those services will vary by airline, said David Melnik, chief executive of Kinetics, Inc., a producer of the self-serve terminals, with nine of the top 15 airlines as customers.
Increasingly, airlines including Alaska Airlines and Northwest also offer e-ticketed customers the chance to print out their boarding pass from their home computer. Generally, customers can use the Internet or a kiosk to check-in 24 to 30 hours before departure, but no earlier. Airlines also cut off self-serve check-in anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour before the flight departs. Passengers should check the individual airline.
With ticket agents freed up from the data-entry work of check-in, they may have more time to answer customers' questions and address problems, experts said.
"Before all of this, a lot of air travelers said to themselves, 'Why in the world do I have to stand here and have this ticket agent do a million key strokes to check me in? Why can't I use a machine?'" said Christopher Elliott, editor of TripRights, a consumer travel site. "They're using ticket agents in a much more productive capacity now."