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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Self-service in the temples of travel

More and more airline travel services are automated. —
More and more airline travel services are automated. — 123RF Stock Photo

Beneath the great arches of Toronto’s Pearson airport, passengers scurry like tiny beetles, luggage piled high on carts while, high above them, instead of the ringing of cathedral bells, the public address system intones its sometimes-cryptic liturgy.

As is always the case in Canada’s non-profit airport world, construction workers move around endlessly, virtually permanently employed in cladding something in marble or some other fine finished stone, using construction budgets fuelled by the airport corporations’ ability to simply add essentially hidden fees to every ticket.

Bigger, higher, always shinier. Your airport doesn’t have its own parkway yet? You must, you must build a wide parkway for the greater glory of air travel.

For all, the four stages of the air travel faith — boarding pass, luggage-tag, security check-in, boarding — need to be addressed, in order, starting with the ranks of touch-screen check-in machines for those who choose not to practise their travel faith more privately at home with web check-in.

And there I was last week at one of those machines, confessing my sins, asking if it would give me a sign, or at least a boarding pass.

The machine clearly doubted that I was a good traveller, for it processed my request more slowly than those of people around me, refusing to reprint my boarding pass to replace the two others already overtaken by flight cancellations. Nearby was an Air Canada employee, hovering to help those who had trouble.

“This one’s slow today,” I said, making small talk while a small circle spun on the screen for the third time.

“It’s just busy,” she said. “It’s very busy, taking our jobs away.”

It’s important to speak the truth in the house of the travel gods.

It’s not the only place where I had dealt with automated systems instead of humans during the trip: I had already been rebooked by the computer system that sent me, in total, 14 separate emails in less than 24 hours, confirming delays, cancellations and rebookings in endless waves, without me ever speaking to customer service personnel.

Efficient, yes, but arbitrary, too. It’s hard to get on a flight that’s rebooked when it’s leaving from a city you won’t be in.

It makes me wonder how far we’re going to go in agreeing to take over our own customer service. Does it ever reach a point where diminishing returns sink all boats, instead of lifting them?

Complex, too, when notifications fail to include what’s actually been changed. But so be it.

The employee’s comment brings home a point about everything from self-service banking to self-serve grocery checkouts on down.

It makes me wonder how far we’re going to go in agreeing to take over our own customer service. Does it ever reach a point where diminishing returns sink all boats, instead of lifting them?

Companies save money by not paying for customer service, or for that matter, paying the income taxes that would be remitted for those employees — money that will vanish from provincial and federal treasuries.

But more: those displaced staff aren’t going to spend anything, either.

I’ve heard some compare it to car manufacture: “Robots build most parts of cars, they say, so are you going to stop driving, too?” Interesting argument — but at the same time, what fuels capitalism if there isn’t money available to be spent?

It becomes a world of who is best suited to exist and manage an economy in decline.

I’m not suggesting that we all rage against the machine, simply for rage’s sake.

But simply put: if people can’t make money, how are they going to pay the tithes necessary to keep building our temples of travel in the sky? Who will buy the marble? Who will cut and polish the stone? What happens to the construction crews who work tirelessly on the airports that always get bigger and more ornate?

And the circle goes around, getting smaller.

Recent columns by this author

RUSSELL WANGERSKY: A painful — but worthwhile — lesson

RUSSELL WANGERSKY: When news gathering goes down the crapper

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky.

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