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Spirit’s Next Fee: Face-to-Face Customer Service?

Spirit has been basking in a seemingly endless shower of press coverage this week, thanks to the debut of its controversial carry-on bag fees. My opinion of the carry-on fees is well-documented (briefly: I don’t like them), and overall customer opinion is mixed.

But now another new fee is floating around: Talking to a human at the airport. Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza told ABC News‘ Scott Mayerowitz, “When talking to a human being becomes an option, rather than a necessity, then we’re willing to charge for it.” He envisions a switch to self-service airport kiosks where passengers can change reservations, check bags, choose seat assignments, and even check in for international flights. The technology isn’t ready yet, and, according to Baldanza, won’t be ready “in the near term.” He also said, “If the only way we can do the transaction for you is to talk to a human, we’re not going to charge you for that.”

Since this is Spirit, the easy assumption is that Baldanza’s fantasy is pure anti-consumer rubbish. But with self-service kiosks already in widespread use, I find it difficult to get too worked up about charging for face-to-face interaction (depending on how much Spirit charges, I should say). However, Spirit’s idea does have several potential pitfalls that could cost unsuspecting customers a bit of cash.

Let’s start with why this could be a good idea. Most airlines at least let you check in from a kiosk, and many have other options as well, including bag check and seat selection. This means part of the flying public has been trained to use them, so switching to a mostly kiosk approach wouldn’t shock people too much. Continental is even testing self-service boarding. Further, the idea could cut down on the amount of time people spend waiting in line, if Spirit installed plenty of machines. Think about it: How often do you see more than three or four people working the ticket counters? If Spirit installed, say, a dozen kiosks, the wait time would (theoretically) be reduced.

But the success (and fairness) of a program that charges for human interaction would hinge entirely on the execution. The interface would have to be simple enough that a customer could easily and quickly complete a task on the first try. Basically, the system should be simple enough that a ten-year-old could change a reservation and check a bag with little difficulty.

The reason is that if Spirit is going to charge for face-to-face transactions, customers should be choosing to pay for the service, not grudgingly doing so because the kiosks are too stinking complicated. And if someone does try to use the kiosk but ends up weeping in frustration, a roaming Spirit employee should be available to offer free assistance. Let’s face it: Not everyone is computer- or tech-savvy, and a touch-screen monitor can be intimidating for some. It would be pretty shameful if Spirit forced these customers into paying a fee for face-to-face service, almost by default, because the kiosks are too tricky. And if you think an airline couldn’t possibly ignore its less technologically literate customers, remember that most airlines charge a phone booking fee but charge nothing for online reservations.

To say Spirit hasn’t earned the trust of the traveling public would be an understatement, and consumers would be forgiven for dusting off the pitchforks over this idea. But there is potential for a workable model here, one that provides customers with a perfectly viable (and free) self-service option alongside traditional customer service travelers can choose to pay for. As long as the choice is truly the consumers’ to make, that’s fine with me.

Readers, what do you think? Is self-service the future of air travel? Do ticket agents and other living, breathing customer service staff provide something computers simply cannot? Leave a comment below with your thoughts. Thanks!

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