To hear Vicki Escarra and her colleagues at Delta Air Lines tell it, the "airport experience" is one experience most airline passengers would like to avoid.
As travelers crush through the nation's airports this holiday season it has become clear to the airlines that if there's one thing the flying public doesn't like, it's airport lines.
In fact, they dislike them so much that the major airlines have been making extensive investments in technology to try to speed up the delivery of passengers to their planes.
Delta, for example, has spent $1.5 billion on new technology in the past 2 1/2 years and expects to spend another $500 million on airport technology in fiscal 2000. "The less time in the system, the better," said Escarra, Delta's executive vice president in charge of customer service."
Delta's goal is to catch up with the rest of the industry in the use of new technology to improve customer service on the ground. "We have been behind in technology for 20 years," she said.
Delta's effort involves touch-screen computer monitors that print tags, confirm seat assignments and issue boarding passes during curbside check-ins for passengers with electronic tickets. It also includes a two-stage security system that whisks you through the metal detectors and X-ray machines twice as fast as before by using bigger monitors and faster conveyor belts.
Pretty soon the airline will catch up indoors as well, with the help of technology long used by car rental companies outdoors: wireless, hand-held devices to attack passenger check-in lines wherever they occur.
Passenger service agents using the new hand-held check-in devices will not wear the red blazers traditionally worn by Delta employees to make them easy to spot in the airport. Delta officials said they don't want small bands of passengers following the agents around; they hope a more anonymous agent can spot congestion rather than create it.
"The whole game plan here is to attack lines," said Joseph Serratelli, director of customer services for Delta. "I never met a person who likes to stand in line."
Some of the new technology amounts to nothing more than big computer-controlled signs over the ticket counters that show which passenger reservation agent is free. That's not a new concept for anyone standing in line at a bank, but the change has cut as much as 25 percent off the waiting time at Delta counters where they have been installed.
Another innovation is a large electronic screen above the check-in counter designed to answer the passenger's most frequently asked questions. It will show the type of meal service, the kind of aircraft being used, boarding times, row numbers during boarding, the names of the movies being shown and any "irregularities"--such as when the plane will really take off.
Delta said its research indicates that the signs can cut customer transactions at the counter by 40 percent.
Then there are the ticket kiosks that allow passengers who have already purchased an electronic ticket to quickly check in, get a boarding pass and head to the departure gate. The idea is to make the check-in as easy as using an ATM machine at a bank.
Delta officials refer to the new airport technology as a "digital nervous system."
"We want technology to be the tail wind of this company," said Robert DeRodes, senior vice president for operations and technology at Delta Technology Inc. Like a tail wind, he said, technology should be invisible.
This is not Delta's first venture into airport technology. Five years ago the carrier was bent on a technological revolution at the airport, but its goal was quite different. Then-chairman Robert Allen wanted to use the new ticketing technology to eliminate almost all full-time jobs at the airport, leaving the work to part-time employees who were cheaper and could be called in to work only the peak hours. It was part of a plan to bring Delta's costs more in line with those of Southwest Airlines, the economic benchmark for the industry.
Those days are over, said Escarra, a veteran of the Allen era. "We're now back to the whole notion of saving people time," she said. "In 1994, we were really trying to save the company. We were losing $1 million a day."
The airline has "backed off" trying to eliminate full-time airport jobs, she said. Delta is still trying to use more part-time employees to better handle the peaks and valleys of daily flight schedules, but they now receive better pay and full-time benefits, she said.
One thing that hasn't changed is the airline's effort to get its customers hooked on electronic ticketing and eventually on using the airline's Internet site to book tickets. Not only does that speed the passage through the airport, it saves the airline money.
Escarra said that half of Delta's customers now use electronic ticketing, up from 30 percent a year ago. Passengers with conventional paper tickets will not be able to take advantage of the new technology as readily as passengers who book their tickets electronically, either with the airline or with a travel agent.
About 2 percent of Delta's passengers book their tickets on the airline's Web site. Escarra said that number is expected to jump to 10 or 12 percent over the next 18 months as Delta promotes that mode of purchase.
Why? The answer is in the math. It costs Delta four times as much to issue a paper ticket as it does to make a reservation on the Internet.
When customers use the Internet, Delta eliminates travel agent commissions and the cost of using the centralized computer reservation system, where the airline is charged every time a travel agent changes someone's ticket. Delta officials said there have been some cases where there were so many changes on a ticket that it cost the airline more that it did the passenger.
There's another benefit from the move toward e-commerce: more information in the airline's database. It can be used to better forecast what kinds of flights passengers might prefer in the future. It can also be used to list frequent fliers who should be coddled, not to mention "troublesome" passengers from previous flights.
CAPTION: Lem Wimbish, vice president of Atlanta World Port, watches a skycap use a touch screen at curbside to check bags and generate boarding pass.
CAPTION: Delta passengers in Atlanta gather near one of the new electronic screens installed above check-in counters to answer frequently asked questions.