American Airlines ‘Single Agent Boarding’ Will Be A Disaster

On Tuesday I wrote about the American Airlines plan to reduce labor costs with ‘single agent boarding’. Airline CFO Derek Kerr brought up the plan at an investment conference after saying that employees just “have to work harder in certain areas.”

My immediate reaction is that this is going to be a customer service nightmare. Without sufficient staffing you can’t take boarding passes and also,

  • Monitoring carry on bags and charge to gate check oversized ones

  • Add people to the standby list who show up at the gate looking to get onto the flight

  • Handle last minute upgrades (when a passenger no shows)

  • Help customers change seats so they can sit together

  • Answer questions from new or nervous flyers, and provide general customer service

This can’t all be done with single agent boarding, let alone doing all of this and still push back on time which American Airlines has made a priority for years though has performed poorly on this score precisely because they haven’t invested in doing all of the things that help an airline to be ready to depart such as having catering arrive on time, getting cleaning crews on and off the plane, etc.

Now, to be sure this has already been happening at some stations, where there are enough supervisors relative to active gates where managers can step in when needed.

Aviation watchdog Jon NYC shares that the plan for single agent boarding applies to:

  • Narrowbody aircraft (like Boeing 737s and Airbus A321s)
  • When they’re less than 80% full

As Jon observes, delays and cancelled flights are going to become even more of a problem without sufficient staff to help customers get rebooked. It’s a far worse customer experience to tell passengers to ‘go to customer service’ or to ‘just use the app’ (which tends to offer very few options even when flights are available).

Single agent boarding eliminates one of the most important customer touchpoints, a big tradeoff for relatively little savings.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I’m curious what percentage of passengers use the AA app? Because clearing can only be fully automated if the passenger doesn’t need a new printed boarding pass.

  2. I disagree…you need an agent to assist with those one-offs, but the vast majority of customer questions / issues can be resolved by using the app and I never understood why ‘self-boarding’ wasn’t more widespread in the US. LH uses it throughout Germany and it works great. If you have an issue and it alarms, you step to the side and see an agent, but that’s the exception, not the norm. The DL and UA apps are light years ahead of AA, AS, and WN, so hopefully they’ll catch up soon, but you simply don’t need human agents standing there to do what technology can do instead. I’d prefer to not talk to a single airline employee until I sit down in my seat and am asked for my drink order…hell even that should be automated.

  3. Maybe American should start this after Labor Day when load factors are lower. In the past American hired seasonal help (college students, etc) for summer assist to scan boarding passes and tag gate checked baggage.

  4. Wanted: Gate agent. Must have experience using whips and have firearm training. Large and athletic a plus. Willing to take martial arts and MMA combat courses. We are eeoc compliant and pay the state minimum wage with an opportunity to earn flight benefits.

  5. @Bob, sure… if AA had self-boarding gates. But they don’t. And there is no plan for doing so.

  6. Actually, with facial recognition, and using AI to automate upgrades, etc. . .plus the larger overhead bins, a lot of these issues will be resolved. Plus AA will likely have a few “floater” to help at gate with issues. . .more likely to be 1.25 agents.

    Time to move on from the dot matrix printers and manually printed boarding passes folks, technology is coming, get ready for it.

  7. In theory, it may work if the agent worked at optimal performance, customers are compliant and followed directions, and everything was working correctly.

    In real life, that just doesn’t happen.

    I’d imagine the bean counters thought this through with no concept of actually working a flight and thinking everything just works.

    In the future, perhaps when there’s widespread adoption and utilization of apps/tools that agents can leverage, it may be possible. But certainly in the current condition, it’s gonna be a screw up when one little thing doesn’t work right and cause mass customer service fails.

  8. You do know UA and DL already preform single agent boarding right?

    Technology will help this.

    I don’t see this as being an issue at all.

  9. As a former agent and supervisor, I can say that this is going to be a total disaster.

  10. I would also be curious how many pax use the app? However, as noted, the app even lacks basic functionality for rebooking flights or handling situations where you miss your flight. Also the ability to change seats in the app grays out at some point, maybe 30-45 minutes before departure.

  11. @Bob, “I’d prefer to not talk to a single airline employee until I sit down in my seat and am asked for my drink order…hell even that should be automated.”

    Hey, you are on a roll, Bob. When your role in your company is automated, you no longer have to talk to automated drink takers.

  12. This type of shortsighted move epitomizes AA: It’s contradictory to their stated goal of D0, will worsen the customer experience, and make people more inclined to fly American only if AA charges less.

  13. Well, not only this will be boarding disaster but it would also cause problems with incoming flights because they still need a GA to operate the bridge and open the doors. I do remember waiting anywhere from 10 to 30 min in an aircraft in front of a gate because a GA wasn’t there.

  14. People, the ultimate goal of the airlines is you walk into a terminal and there are NO people. Everything will be done by automation. Happening faster than you think. We’re headed to a Bladerunner world.

  15. I’m curious about how they’re going to stay compliant with the FAA requirement to monitor carry-on size and weight (baggage and passenger) and snag the increasingly common drunk, among other things. There’s entirely too much going on during boarding to have only one gate agent per flight.

  16. If only they’d do “single flight attendant”. It’d still be one too many but a step in the right direction nonetheless. Because great is what they’re going for!

  17. This is what USAirways did – one agent did it all. We are seeing the continuing USAirwayization of what was formerly a great airline.

  18. Single agent boarding seems quite problematic especially with so many “occasional” flyers currently.. And potentially a BIG mess during IRROPS. I just traveled on CRJ-9000 RJ out of Charlotte – the flight was 100% full. Many, many passengers had no seat assignments (no status), there was potential for IDB, and the incoming plane arrived just a little late. The single agent (PSA Airlines staff) was doing yeoman work to keep things moving .and the flight boarded and left on time. But she was mega-busy and if anything had glitched it would have been BAD. This with a 90 passenger RJ… Single agent boarding sounds like high risk/low reward for AA. As an aside, very, very few leisure travelers have or use the AA app, or even know about it!

  19. This is exactly what happens when HDQ – Finance Weenies with absolutely zero field experience are allowed to dictate field policies and procedures. What an incredibly bafoon…”agents will just have to work harder”…..another clueless moron in the AA hierarchy!!!

  20. I fly American often when in the US. My bookings are usually on a Qantas flight ticket, Qantas coded flight – I haven’t needed the AA app and don’t need another airline app to manage my travel. Quite often a gate agent needs to see my passport and my residence visa as well as my right to transit Australia en-route to NZ. This is often done at the first flight of a multi-flight itinerary rather than exclusively at the international flight gate.
    Good luck with that single gate agent idea.

  21. Sunviking2,

    Facial-recognition boarding on my last several international flights out of the US — on what were very empty flights — took longer per passenger than the traditional method of boarding pass scan and checking passport.

    Single-agent boarding by itself doesn’t speed up boarding on domestic flights; and it really adds a lot more extreme variance to the time involved — based on whatever set of particular circumstances are applicable to the agent and to the passengers on any given flight. And facial-recognition-based boarding may not speed up boarding times despite managed claims to try to seem as if it necessarily already has. For domestic flights, why should there even ever be facial-recognition based boarding? Boarding passes being scanned and being used for boarding without facial-recognition technology has worked well enough for decades, so I don’t see anything for me to gain from more expensive boarding processes.

    We are still many years off from having a fully automated self-boarding process for flights in and from the US where no gate agents are necessary.

  22. Another crack-pot idea from an airline. Do these management people have working brains? Do they just look at the bottom line of cost projections and think ‘Oh boy, we could save money and I’ll look good for having thought this up’? Having ‘supervisors’ hanging around ‘just in case” is a great theory, but unworkable and expensive. I’ve always thought that all the politicians and lawyers should be shipped off to the moon so we can start over. Perhaps we need to do that with airline middle management as well.

  23. That is because most of the middle and upper managers have no front line, “on the ground” experience. It’s been like this at least since deregulation.

  24. Work harder!? I see gate agents working hard already…sometimes you need get real before making such a pompas directive!

  25. Well said…huey judy!! One small clarification. It’s not “middle management” that comes up with these idiotic “cost saving” ideas, it’s upper management – especially, as you note, the Finance empty suits who wouldn’t know a boarding pass from a bagel. Unfortunately, when the top executives are fixated on totally ignoring the service received by those who ultimately pay the bills, and focus on their astronomical and usurious stock option arrangements.

  26. I can not see how one agent can handle everything that happens last minute. I am speaking from experience as I was a gate agent from the day d/fw opened until my
    Retirement in April 30 1995. I feel for the one agent.

  27. AA’s multiple agent boarding process was a complete disaster, it can’t get much worse with just one

  28. I’m a retired AA Flight Attendant. Are they going to make me help the single Agent board the flight before I get on it? It wouldn’t surprise me.

  29. I used to be Executive platinum with American for a number of years and two years ago I dropped them like a bad habit because I felt they have completely lost sight of the customer experience. The app works great for the experienced flyer when things are going as planned. For the inexperienced, for when there are cancelations, over bookings, too much carry on luggage, unruly fliers, etc … Forget it. In my +30 years of flying, this is the single most irresponsible decision I’ve witnessed.. Sadly, it’s not at all surprising to me that American Airlines stopped so low. They are a disgrace.

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