It is not too much of a stretch to say that the defining feature of our 21st century culture – at least for the moment – is the pervasiveness of digital mobility. Not only is this technology to be found in practically everyone’s hand, it has fundamentally changed the behavior of practically everyone it touches; the way we act and the way we interact.
This is especially so in travel. Technology on the go for people on the go is about as perfect a fit as one could conjure up. But there’s more than mere convenience at work here. These little devices have the capability to actually learn our travel, bypassing such repetitive, routine functions as trip planning and purchasing. With such power in our palms, it’s no wonder the travel business is going out of its way to automate processes and minimize possibility of human error in the equation.
Now this is all well and good, especially when you consider that the number of people who move through global aviation system every year is equivalent to half the world’s population. When the passenger count is this huge, not only is technology desirable, it’s absolutely necessary; in fact, most of us would be happier if more automation and less error were already baked into the system.
But (and you knew there was a ‘but’ coming) what’s the cost when things goes wrong?
On a recent trip to Europe, I got a chance first-hand to reflect on that question when my return flight was cancelled. It’s a situation we’re all familiar with; the schedule breaks down and all the well-laid plans, all the automation, all the ‘touchless’ passenger/airline interaction designed for perfect conditions, goes kaput. Then the real cost of the breakdown begins to reveal itself.
For whatever reason, such technological niceties as trip disruption and auto-rebooking didn’t kick in for lots of people. The queue of passengers stretched from one side of the terminal to the other standing in line for probably two and a half hours or more. Behind the counter a bank of airline people manned the terminals, and who knows how many support personnel were scrambling behind the scenes in IT and the like.
To while away the time, I tried to calculate the losses – lost productivity for business travelers, lost vacation hours for leisure travelers, lost revenue for the carrier, lost efficiency among airline employees. But there was no way to put a dollar (or a euro) amount on the chaos.
We may wish that the system always functioned perfectly. And frankly, it does about 99 percent of the time. Technology – mobility, artificial intelligence and all the rest of it – certainly makes huge contributions to that success. But technology alone won’t diminish the demand for well-trained people; indeed, it enhances it. When things don’t go according to plan, travel providers need to have the right people ready to step in, to set the system aright and get travelers on their way.
Because ultimately the business of travel is the art of people reaching people.