Faced with Australia’s sky-high airport charges, the high dollar and other cost problems for all businesses that have been in the news for the past few years, Australian airlines have had no choice but to use technological innovations to try to rip costs out of their operations.
In the process, several of the sacred cows attached to the low-cost airline (LCC) model have been slaughtered.
While full-service airlines embrace high-tech solutions primarily to impress business travellers and save them time as a convenience issue, the holiday carriers see it as a weapon in their never-ending battle with the cost bulge.
In Australia, the first LCC rule to go was the free-for-all seating rule: not having to give passengers a seating assignment saved an incremental amount of money, but the real change came when the LCCs realised people were prepared to pay extra for preferred seating.
And so, in the process of introducing preferred seating, automatic non-preferred seat allocation became the default if you didn’t want to pay a few dollars more to sit next to friends or family.
Before then, you were just cattle jostling for the better seats in a first-come-first-served pushing contest.
In Australia, Jetstar last only about two years after its 2004 launch before it abandoned the free-for-all. Tigerair introduced preferred seating in 2007 about six months before it launched Tiger Australia.
As it turns out, my most vivid recollection of those days was when I was travelling around America in 2006 and 2007, mostly using Southwest Airlines. Bluntly, the idea of standing in a queue for an hour or more to get a “good” seat and jostling with your competitors as you enter the aircraft is more 19th century than 20th century. Good riddance – especially now that we discover that technology has made it redundant.
Now, we discover that those expensive IT hardware/software systems that are in the process of abolishing the traditional airport check-in are not only affordable, but essential in simplifying and streamlining one of the parts of the system that most annoys travellers.
News that the last holdout among the major airlines, Tigerair, would soon begin automated check-in was buried in the detail of the December 4 announcement of the establishment of its latest crew and aircraft base in Brisbane.
Tiger will base two A320s in the Queensland capital from March to introduce new routes from Brisbane to Darwin, Cairns and Adelaide and boost frequencies from Brisbane to Melbourne and Sydney.
As part of that the development – the first conducted strategically allowing for the interests of its new owner Virgin Australia – Tigerair will begin introducing automated bag drop and check-in kiosks across its national airport network.
“The introduction of self-service kiosks and automated bag drop technology drives a number of efficiencies,” Tigerair chief executive Rob Sharp told me in an email. “We highlighted that customer queues reduce and customers have a more streamlined experience.
“This translates to a significant increase in the number of passengers that can move through the check-in hall infrastructure deferring or reducing the need to build expensive building and equipment infrastructure.
“The nature of the work that ground handling staff perform moves from a more transactional focus to hosting and assisting passengers and delivering an improved customer product. This occurs with no overall cost increase.”
As I have written about online and in print for Fairfax publications in recent years, there has been more consumer grief at the check-in counter than at any other stage of the travel experience, especially among LCCs.
It’s not surprising that, in its fourth major management change since its 2007 arrival in Australia, Tigerair, which is yet to make a profit in Australia, is using technology to give it an edge or simply to keep up with innovations its competitors have already introduced.
According to Rob Sharp, historically budget travel accounted for only 19 per cent of overall travel to and from Brisbane Airport compared with 33 per cent in Melbourne and 26 per cent in Sydney.
"We are responding to this demand for budget travel," he said in December. "Our fares have been proven to stimulate markets and we strongly believe in the potential this new base presents.
"From April 2014, Queensland will account for 59 per cent of our total capacity - 59 per cent of all Tigerair seats will touch Queensland from April next year - and is a critically important market for Tigerair."
Have you flown with Tigerair? What was your experience like? Are you please to see the introduction of self-serve kiosk check-in, or do you prefer the over-the-counter personal approach? Post your comments below.