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Contactless travel could threaten airport jobs

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Air travel is becoming self-reliant and autonomous travel, posing a threat to traditional airport customer service jobs.

Why is this important: Automation and artificial intelligence have long been seen as a threat to jobs, but the unprecedented disruption the coronavirus pandemic is posing to the travel industry could have lasting implications for the workforce.

Where he is : Self-service kiosks have already replaced tasks 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 moving quickly to “Contactless” technology using facial recognition, AI, automation and biometric scanners.

  • American Airlines, for example, is test mobile ID technology in its baggage drop area at Dallas / Fort Worth and Reagan National airports.
  • Instead of passengers handing over their ID to the airline agent, a digital token on their smartphone can verify their identity.
  • At Abu Dhabi International Airport, Etihad Airways tests baggage drop system which uses AI to recognize unique scuffs and other features on nearly identical suitcases and match them to the correct passenger with a digital tag.
  • At Hong Kong International Airport, in autonomous driving, “intelligent sterilization” robots clean public areas and toilets.

The big question: Could the jobs lost in the airline industry during the pandemic disappear 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.
  • In addition, the airline industry is highly regulated and employees need extensive training and certification, she said.
  • “Ground crew, boarding agents, flight attendants, mechanics, pilots – all need to be checked with certification. These tasks cannot be performed with automation. “

But that’s the whole ecosystem around airports which faces workforce disruption, said Robert Puentes, president and CEO of the non-profit think tank Eno Center for Transportation.

  • Concessions and ancillary businesses like parking shuttles are often disadvantaged business ventures hired by government airport authorities. Some employees are municipal employees.
  • “Airports will look very different, but there will always be a need for airport workers” when demand returns, he said.

A new report of the MIT working group on Future Work shows that concerns about automation and AI leading to widespread job destruction are probably overblown.

  • As with other technological changes, researchers have found that some jobs are destroyed by automation and AI while others are created.
  • While they didn’t look at the airline industry in particular, they did note that unmanned planes require significantly more people to operate than traditional planes.

The context: Prior to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, 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 the start of 1987.
  • However, jobs have been on the rise in recent years and the industry is preparing to create around 100,000 jobs in 2020, Nelson said.
  • Instead, about 90,000 airline jobs will be gone by the end of the year, according to Airlines for America.

What to watch: The technology cannot be truly judged until air travel returns to normal levels, says Madhu Unnikrishnan, editor-in-chief of Airline Weekly, a trade publication.

  • “It may all seem to be working very well right now, this automation, but we’re talking about a third of the usual traffic.”


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