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This spring, technology refuseniks wanting to fly on British Airways' domestic routes were confronted with Hobson's Choice: when UK-based business travellers were questioned in a recent survey by Accenture, the consultancy, 16 per cent confessed that the reason they had not used self-service kiosks at airports to pick up their boarding cards was that they did not know how to do so. Now, unless they check-in online before leaving for the airport, they will have to learn.
On April 25, the airline abandoned conventional check in for services to destinations such as Edinburgh and Manchester. It was a vivid example of the way automation is affecting every aspect of business travel, from booking to staying in touch with home while on the road.
A clutch of other carriers had also introduced online check in and enabled customers to print boarding passes at home or in their offices. Similarly, many had installed machines in airport terminals. Some airports, such as Helsinki Vantaa, plan to introduce kiosks shared by airlines operating there.
According to the Accenture survey, 46 per cent of travellers had used machines to check in and 72 per cent of those who had done so found it more convenient than going to the desk.
Hotel companies have been warier than airlines about reducing human contact, though some have introduced similar technology. Hilton has already installed automatic kiosks to check in and out at over 200 hotels in the US, three-quarters of them Embassy Suites properties. And the group has just announced that guests using such machines at 37 Hiltons can now use them to print airline boarding cards. Holiday Inn in the US has tested similar technology and had planned to extend kiosks to many properties across the country last year. A spokeswoman, however, says that is still the company’s intention, but developing the technology to issue key cards and negotiating check-in links with airlines had taken longer than anticipated.
Automation is even taking some of the frustration out of car rental. For example, National and Alamo agents can now use computer software to calculate the cost of damage when vehicles are returned, ending the usual practice of hanging on to the customer's deposit until the price of repair or replacement has been assessed and processed.
Technology on aircraft and trains is making it easier to combine work and relaxation. At the end of March, nine carriers including Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa, Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), Etihad and Japan Airlines were offering in-flight internet access using the Connexion by Boeing system on a total of 184 routes. According to research by Boeing, the 90 per cent use the service to check and send e-mail (most accessing corporate virtual private networks), 69 per cent browsed the web and 7 per cent made calls via their laptops using VOIP (voice over internet protocol). Some were also using the system to provide live television, currently in the forms of BBC World, EuroNews, Eurosportnews, CNBC and MSNBC.
When it comes to entertainment, the latest AVOD (audio and video on demand) systems such as those installed by Emirates and Air New Zealand, enable passengers on long flights to choose from a wide range of movies, for example, and to stop and restart them exactly when they want.
Rail operators are increasingly providing laptop power points and wireless internet access. They include the UK's GNER, which plans to equip its entire fleet for wi-fi connections by August, nine months ahead of the deadline originally planned. When the move was announced in March, the company’s chief executive Christopher Garnett said: “Wireless internet is already proving popular and versatile on board the ten trains which already have it. We are keen to bring the benefits to all passengers as quickly as we can.”
But while all these developments are making the process of travelling more efficient, and in some cases less tedious, there is no doubt that the biggest impact of technology on travel has been the area of buying and selling it.
On the positive side this has saved time and cut costs. E-auction tools are available, for example, which help speed up the annual process of seeking competitive, negotiated deals with from suppliers. American Express Travel recently launched one that enables meetings organisers to solicit offers from venues. Short-listed venues can then bid against each other to provide peripheral services such as catering. Attracting bookings via their websites has helped full service airlines to reduce the amount they pay in fees to the major computer reservations network operators (GDSs or global distribution systems), hold down distribution costs and compete more effectively with no-frills rivals. Ease of comparing prices online, not least through self-booking tools has also helped keep costs in check.
On the minus side, the proliferation of online booking channels has sparked price confusion and anarchy. Hotel groups have been forced to issue guarantees that they will match or better rates on other people's websites that undercut those on their own. As online self-booking increases, either through dedicated corporate tools or via the internet at large, travel managers have been faced with staff finding fares lower than those negotiated with airlines approved by their companies. This has made it harder for companies to achieve targets for bulk business agreed in return for discounts.
Providers of self-booking tools already build-in checks to ensure employees explain why they have strayed from company travel policy but by the time the travel manager finds but what has happened the damage may already have been done.
Norman Gage, business travel director of the UK's Advantage travel agents' consortium, estimates that only about 6 per cent of members currently provide some or all of their corporate clients with self-booking tools. “People always need people. Technology cannot deal with the sort of problems that occurred during the recent Gate Gourmet catering strike at Heathrow, for example. And I have sat next to people at airports who have made mistakes booking online who had to pay for a ticket all over again.”
If a passenger presses the wrong button booking direct, he says, the airline may be intransigent. “If a travel agent does it, it's down to the agent. But he believes that in the not too distant future, say in ten years time, perhaps 90 per cent of trips will be organised using such tools. “It will be hi-tech, low-touch. There will probably be fewer travel agents and those that remain will need fewer staff.”