Airlines Expand Online Check-In Options

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Recognizing that passengers are looking for faster ways to check in at the airport, many airlines are adding kiosks and mobile devices that allow customers to check in through their Web sites.

"Technology is the single biggest area that we're spending money on over the next year, both in kiosks and other self-service and mobile devices to help speed customers through checking in and boarding aircraft," said Scott Hyden, managing director for product management, interactive marketing at American Airlines.

"We're getting to a situation where we want customers to have choices in how they interface with us, [so] they can check in at the counter, home, work, the club or at the kiosk," said Al Lenza, vice president of distribution planning at Northwest Airlines.

With 235 kiosks in 35 airports, Northwest plans to process 4 million customers through the devices this year. The airline's customers can check in at the Web site and present their identification at the boarding door.

Northwest's challenge: "We're hustling just to keep up with demand," Lenza said.

Northwest also uses portable workstations at its airport hubs, processing customers with e-tickets as they wait in line. The "line busters" process about 20,000 passengers a month, and Northwest will be expanding the service.

Meanwhile, airline start-up JetBlue will add additional kiosks after successful tests. At tests in Burlington, VT, for example, 35 percent of customers checked in at the kiosks, which also help passengers book or change flights.

David Neeleman, CEO of JetBlue, acknowledged that fliers need more education on using kiosks, but he believes they will realize the advantages. "Once [they] get to use it once, they'll never go back to standing in line," he said.

Continental Airlines is testing kiosks as well. "Besides the obvious customer facilitation, the kiosks will help with the tremendous strain on hub airports, as we've been growing 10 percent a year," said Jim Young, managing director of distribution planning at Continental.

Airline executives also said they are working toward notifying customers when flights are canceled or delayed. All JetBlue reservation agents work from their homes and carry pagers. When flights are canceled, the airline contacts the agents, who call all customers on those flights.

"We have had everything, including cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses on every customer, since we started," Neeleman said.

The airlines are rewarding customers with e-tickets in several ways. Northwest offers 1,000 free miles to its frequent fliers for booking online.

Still, airline executives believe they must significantly improve synergies between the online and offline worlds. Young said Continental needs to "recognize the customer better in whatever channel they purchase.

"A lot of the feedback we're getting from our corporate customers who ... buy from is that they don't get access to their corporate deal because they decided to buy on the Web," he said.

Young said's design and marketing have also come in line with offline marketing. The appearance of the site now matches the airline's Work Hard, Fly Right campaign.

"You recognize that your Web site is a medium very similar to print, radio, television and outdoor advertising sets," Young said. "That has created a lot of economies of scale for us internally, and made us a little bit more effective in the way we can adapt to marketplace conditions in change."

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