As is so often the case with travel in the United States these days, U.S. airlines are coming in a day late and a dollar short when it comes to innovation.
The latest example is Continental Airlines' experiment with passenger self-boarding, being trialed at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, in Houston. Basically, this consists of printing out your boarding pass at home, then swiping it at a turnstyle-like device at the airport gate. If it works as intended, you are cleared for boarding; you don't hand the boarding pass to an airline employee to do a swipe. The idea is to speed up the boarding process, according to Continental.
"One gate has been tested, and so far we've been pleased with what we've learned with the experience,'' the New York Times quotes airline spokeswoman Christen David saying. There are still gate agents around if you need them for assistence with anything, she added.
Jeez. One gate. One airport. One airline.
Continental is the first U.S. major to test self-boarding. But self-boarding is not new. I did it with Japan's All Nippon Airways in January 2008 - two and a half years ago - at Tokyo's Haneda airport - this was after booking the flight and getting my seat assignment, all on a handset. To board the plane, one places the handset and flight bar code down on a display panel at the turnstyle, and the turnstyle reads the bar code. It was simple and easy, even for a confirmed technophobe like me.
One gets the feeling that by the time America catches up to this, Japan and other world leaders in travel technology and infrastructure will have moved on to something else. "Beam me up, Scottie,'' perhaps.
At least Continental is trying, unlike some of its peers. Now, all we have to worry about is Continental's planned merger with United Airlines, which may go through by the end of this year. Continental has built a reputation in recent years for good customer service, at least by feeble U.S. standards. United, which used to advertise its service in the Friendly Skies, now has some of the surliest, don't-bother-me customer service there is. It will be interesting to see whose corporate culture prevails after the merger.
If it's United's, watch out.