By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer
HEBRON - In an effort to ease one of the biggest headaches of air travel, Delta Air Lines is automating its services for passengers whose flights are delayed or canceled.
Under a new system recently installed at airports served by Delta - including its Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport hub - Delta passengers whose connecting flights are delayed more than two hours or canceled can get food and hotel vouchers automatically through scanning and printing machines without standing in line and waiting for the services of a gate agent.
The computer system also identifies fliers who may miss connections or be stranded because their flights are delayed or canceled and rebooks them on later flights. Passengers can scan the bar codes on their tickets and receive boarding passes for their new flights through Delta computer terminals.
It's the latest step in automation at the Atlanta-based carrier which employs thousands in Greater Cincinnati. Delta earlier computerized its check-in system and recently added baggage tracking to its electronic services.
Industry analysts say Delta is the first airline to employ a computerized system to serve passengers whose flights are delayed or canceled.
"Instead of passengers getting frustrated with one agent handling one person at a time, now our customers can spread out all over the airport, get their business done and it's not as frustrating," said Carol Zupancic, Delta's station manager here.
The system will identify people delayed by more than two hours for eligibility for a meal voucher and those who are stranded overnight for hotel vouchers, if Delta thinks the delay or cancellation is the airline's fault. In cases of inclement weather, the voucher will be good for a discounted hotel room. (Delta does not pay a full room rate in weather-related cases). Food vouchers are good until 11 p.m. the following day and good at any airport Delta serves.
The system, which has been tested since April 6 at 10 airports including Cincinnati, is now fully operational throughout Delta's network - including in Comair's Concourse C. About 21 million passengers a year move through Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International and about 20 million are handled by Delta and its affiliates.
It automates a process that has been difficult for passengers to deal with as gate agents struggle to accommodate dozens of travelers who can be affected by the delay of a single flight. Zupancic said that if passengers aren't satisfied with the computer-assisted arrangements, they still can speak with a Delta employee on possible alternate arrangements.
Delta won't say how much it is spending on the system, but says that it could help cut costs, because it cuts manpower.
Still, local art and antiques gallery owner Reyne Haines said that she would probably call Delta's reservation system directly or wait in line rather than settle for an automated response.
"That machine might not rebook you on a flight that is the best for you, but is the best for Delta," said Haines, who flies as often as three to four times a month but has been stranded only once in the past four years. "A lot of people don't know that one airline can get you a flight on another airline. For the business traveler, (the new Delta system) might not be the best option."
Yet Zupancic said the system makes sense for most travelers, a sentiment echoed by veteran gate agent Don Barrow.
"I've been on the other side of the counter and seen the frustration," said Barrow, a senior customer service agent who has been with Delta 35 years. "It's nice to see that frustration go away."
New flights, faster
Pilcher: Cable phone service works, but will consumers buy it?
Windows XP users can set default to play music CDs automatically
MORE BUSINESS HEADLINES
Fuel prices loosening grip
Plan's dilemma: Drop-Inn Center
Workers: Kroger to buy 8 Thriftways
Tristate business digest
Bob Evans buys chain in West
AK Steel workers OK new contract
Microsoft works to fortify small-business division
Omnicare takeover fight turns into war of words
Retail sales increase by 1.2 percent in May
Hostile work suits widened
Nations' hope: better living by free trade