Nov 20, 2020 - Economy

Touchless travel could threaten airport jobs

Illustration of an airline check-in kiosk with a wings pin

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Air travel is becoming a touchless, self-directed journey, which poses a threat to traditional airport customer service jobs.

Why it matters: Automation and artificial intelligence have long been viewed as a threat to jobs, but the unprecedented disruption that the coronavirus pandemic is posing to the travel industry could have lasting workforce implications.

Where it stands: Self-service kiosks have already replaced jobs traditionally performed by airport or airline staff, such as check-in, security, concessions and immigration.

  • Yes, but: No one wants to use a touchscreen during a pandemic.

Many airports are quickly moving toward "touchless" technology using facial recognition, AI, automation and biometric scanners.

  • American Airlines, for instance, is testing mobile ID technology at its bag drop area at Dallas/Fort Worth and Reagan National airports.
  • Instead of passengers handing their ID to the airline agent, a digital token on their smartphone can verify their identity.
  • At Abu Dhabi International Airport, Etihad Airways is testing a bag-drop system that uses AI to recognize unique scuff marks and other characteristics on nearly identical suitcases and match them to the correct passenger with a digital tag.
  • At Hong Kong International Airport, self-driving, "intelligent sterilization" robots clean public areas and restrooms.

The big question: Could airline industry jobs lost during the pandemic be gone for good?

  • No way, says Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA and a leading advocate for aviation workers.
  • Even automated baggage systems need humans behind the scenes, she notes.
  • Besides, the airline industry is highly regulated and employees require extensive training and certification, she said.
  • "Ground personnel, gate agents, flight attendants, mechanics, pilots — all of them have to be checked off with certification. These jobs can't be performed with automation."

But it's the entire ecosystem around airports that faces workforce disruption, said Robert Puentes, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonprofit think tank.

  • Concessions and ancillary businesses like parking lot shuttles are often disadvantaged business enterprises hired by government airport authorities. Some employees are municipal workers.
  • "Airports will look a lot different, but there's still a need for airport workers" when demand returns, he said.

A new report from MIT's task force on the Work of the Future makes the case that worries about automation and AI leading to widespread job destruction are likely overblown.

  • As with other technological shifts, the researchers found some jobs are destroyed by automation and AI while others are created.
  • While they didn't examine the airline industry in particular, they noted that unmanned aircraft require many more people to operate than traditional aircraft.

Context: Prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, airline employment peaked at 546,000 people, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • By 2010, it had fallen to 377,000, the lowest level since early 1987.
  • Jobs had been on the upswing, however, in recent years, and the industry was preparing to add about 100,000 jobs in 2020, Nelson said.
  • Instead, an estimated 90,000 airline jobs will be gone by year-end, according to the Airlines for America.

What to watch: Technology can't be truly judged until air travel returns to normal levels, says Madhu Unnikrishnan, editor of Airline Weekly, a trade publication.

  • "It all may seem like it's working really well right now, this automation, but we're talking about one-third of the usual traffic."
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