Qantas removes staffed service desks but “more choice” for flyers

Contentious changes will be accompanied by improvements to the overall passenger experience, Qantas maintains.

By David Flynn, December 2 2020
Qantas removes staffed service desks but “more choice” for flyers

“There’s never going to be a point along the journey where our people are not around if you need them.”

That’s the promise Qantas is making to everybody from once-a-year leisure travellers to frequent flyers as the airline removes staffed service desks from domestic airports and lounges in the first half of 2021.

While the controversial move will see around 100 jobs lost, the airline says more staff will move out from behind those desks and adopt ‘roaming’ customer service roles with a more pro-active brief to assist passengers.

Dedicated service desks at lounges will be closed under the plan.
Dedicated service desks at lounges will be closed under the plan.

Read: Qantas to close service desks at airports, lounges 

“The whole idea is to get our people as much as possible out from behind desks to where the customer is, and interact with them, rather than the customer having to walk over to the service desk” explains Stephanie Tully, Qantas’ Chief Customer Officer.

Talking with Executive Traveller, Tully is eager to stress that there will be no change to staffing at the check-in counters – only at the sales desks, which are nominally used to sell tickets at the last minute.

Qantas' Steph Tully says changes will put control in the traveller's hands.
Qantas' Steph Tully says changes will put control in the traveller's hands.

“To be honest, hardly anyone uses the sales desks (to buy tickets),” according to Tully, who says the main reason passengers visited the desk was “to pay for excess baggage.” 

“So we will be making that much more simple to do on customer's own device or have our roaming customer service people do that quickly on their devices.”

Most passengers, Tully maintains, don't realise until they get to the bag drop area that they are above their checked baggage allowance, “and obviously the amount of customers over the excess baggage is a minority anyway.”

“So when they go to the bag drop and their weight is over, they've then been going across to the sales desk to pay for that.”

“What will happen now is the roaming agent will come to the customer and they’ll have the ability to pay for on their device. It saves the customer going over from the baggage area to the sales desk to do that, in fact the customer doesn't actually have to move from their bag.”

Technology moves to the fore  

Qantas sees this as just another step in the evolution of the airport experience – in turn reflecting changes in travel habits and technology – which in the past decade has gone from rows of check-in desks to the original ‘tap-and-go’ towers and now self-service terminals, flanked by airline staff to help as needed.

But, mindful that not all passengers are ‘digital natives’ comfortable with the new era of smartphones and apps, Tully reiterates that Qantas’ staff armed with iPad tablets “will always be there to help.”

This can involve the staff making or changing a booking on that tablet, or walking passengers through the process on their own device.

“We want our team to help educate the customers on how to control their own journey, so they might ask the customer ‘Can I do this for you, or would you like me to show you how you can do it the next time you don't even need me?’.”

“So the whole idea is to put as much control in the customer's hands as possible, but still have our people there for support when they are needed.”

The past decade has seen all airlines embrace technology and self-service.
The past decade has seen all airlines embrace technology and self-service.

This approach also means bringing more Qantas staff onto the check-in area, into the lounge and even at departure gates when things go awry, such as thunderstorms which can see flights delayed or cancelled, Tully says, as well as revamping Qantas’ own systems and technology for dealing with disruptions.

“Some of this is very ‘back of house’, but we’ve automated some the really manual stuff.”

“We have improved the way we can rebook flights, which can be very manual now, so we can re-accommodate customers in a disruption much faster than we have in the past.”

“It also means that the entire aircraft is re-accommodated according to customers’ priority and status as well.”

Tully says the airline will also be able to send meal and accommodation vouchers directly to the Qantas app, rather than have staff fill in those vouchers by hand for every passenger during a disruption.

Again, passengers without the app will still be issued a paper voucher, but removing time-consuming tasks should allow staff to reduce the time spent with every passenger and “be able to get through more people quicker.”

“We want our people to be able to focus on providing that ‘full service’ to customers and not be dealing with these very manual tasks, that's really not using their service skills.”

Tully also says the airline’s telephone service desks will add “a fast track line for customers at the airport… so there shouldn't be a concern about standing there waiting for the phone to be answered.”

Beefing up the Qantas app 

One of the most controversial decisions, certainly for business travellers and frequent flyers, involves also removing Qantas staff from dedicated in-lounge service desks such as those at Melbourne and Brisbane.

And again, in the event of major disruptions, Tully says that additional Qantas staff will be sent to the lounges “and they might end up using that desk, but they won’t need to because I'll have it all on their device.”

“The two reasons people go to lounge service desk, and they often go to the entry desk to do this as well, are seat changes and on-departure points upgrades.”

Travellers will be able to do much more through the Qantas app, including seat changes and easy upgrades.
Travellers will be able to do much more through the Qantas app, including seat changes and easy upgrades.

Both of those will soon be rolled into the Qantas app, Tully says.

“Customers can still see a person if they need, but we believe most customers would rather take control of that themselves, while they’re relaxing with a drink, rather than queuing at the service desk.”

Further out, Tully says, this could also extend to in-app notifications of upgrade options for their flight.

“Bringing that as close as we can to departure, and not just via email, is absolutely on the roadmap.”

Bag-tracking alerts

Another Qantas app upgrade will see introduce bag-tracking alerts.

“We've got new technology in place to automate our understanding of when a customer's bag has not made it onto their flight, so we can proactively text or send an app notification to a customer to detail their options.”

On a high-frequency route such as Sydney-Melbourne, this could include “heading to the lounge and waiting for the next flight, if that's a reasonable option, or we can deliver it and the customer can confirm their delivery address in the app.”

“What happens now is the customer often waits at the baggage carousel, wondering where the bag is, then they go to the baggage service desk where they might already be a queue to get their details recorded.”

Again, Tully affirms “the baggage service desk isn't closing, so if a customer doesn't have the technology or we've got no way of reaching them, there are still Qantas people there to help.”

“But we think this is a great example of where things are going to be so much more seamless due to technology.”

David

David Flynn is the Editor-in-Chief of Executive Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.

24 Oct 2010

Total posts 2442

Readers are reminded that comments should be considered and add value to the topic: no pointless 'man shouts at cloud' rants, please. Comments will be held for moderation before they are published.

Qantas

19 Apr 2012

Total posts 1213

I must say the headline of fewer staff is more choice is a little 1984 Orwellian. The only thing I ask at the service desk is about showers, towels etc. are they now self service in presumably safe way at the showers.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

04 Mar 2014

Total posts 165

“The two reasons people go to lounge service desk"

In my experience its often for a bump up to an earlier flight, and rightly or wrongly, i have a feeling this will only happen now on the app where a flex ticket has been purchased.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

09 May 2011

Total posts 359

Presumably the day of departure and time of day will unlock the app to allow you to change, much like what the kiosk does now, even when you haven't purchased a flexi ticket.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

26 Feb 2020

Total posts 13

The app is going to have to be very very flexible to enable an entire flight’s passengers to rebook themselves on a new flight due to a weather cancellation.... 

19 Nov 2012

Total posts 44

The backend system will now automatically rebook people into the next available seats according to status.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

11 Oct 2014

Total posts 573

@QFcrew

A welcome improvement, but not one which would benefit a low (or no) status passenger / group travelling for compassionate or time-critical reasons. 

Such an action would only compound stress for this group .. and they would still need to track down relevant human intervention assistance.

14 Oct 2016

Total posts 86

The proof will be in the pudding, but there is an element of some of the issues why people need to go to the service staff is that complications have arisen, say a flight has been cancelled and the next connecting flight is tomorrow. 

What Qantas needs to do is make it easier for the customers to adjust their flights, get shuttles, hotels, compensation and other services through the Web. If that don't make these things easier to access on the website then I'll have to put these changes as a step backwards. 

Etihad - Etihad Guest

21 Jul 2019

Total posts 60

I'm with you on this one. Yes, I might be in for a huge disappointment, but I also prefer to try something before I pass judge. The issue, as you point out, is the real pressing need for QANTAS to make it possible for pax to do online all those very important things you outlined. What weighs on my mind - with all these changes - is the now standard operating procedure at QANTAS to overhype and under-deliver on both hard and soft product.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

25 May 2017

Total posts 78

As a lifetime Platinum member nothing will come close to the service you receive in the Business class lounge from the Business class service desk.  Being directed to a phone is not the solution.  You pay a premium for service. This is being removed and so will be my business. Very disappointed to see this short sighted move is taking place.  I take around 4 domestic flights a week and all with Qantas. When I need to move flights or a flight is cancelled the re assurance of dealing with a person to give immediate assistance is what I am paying for. So disappointed and will seriously now move to other options.  

18 Jul 2018

Total posts 26

Where do you intend to take your business with an expectation of better service? Serious question.

P1
P1

24 Apr 2017

Total posts 70

Sure thing Qantas, take the away from the desks where they serve people, to "where the customer is", and interact with them.

OH WAIT, the customers is waiting at the desk looking for someone to serve them!

There is nothing better to focus a customer service rep, to the job at hand, than to have a queue of people waiting for them. Put them out "somewhere" in the terminal and there will be constant  frustration as people can't find someone to serve them, let alone in any sort of prioritised way.

20 Oct 2015

Total posts 106

I like the idea of adding all these features to the Qantas app, better automation bag tracking, automating meal and hotel vouchers etc. And I think having some staff get out from behind the sales and service desk to proactively help passengers at the checkin area is a great idea, very much like what Qantas did when it cut back the checkin desks at Sydney in favour of the self-service terminals. But Qantas really should have rolled out all these improvements first, and then removed staff from the service desks once the changes had proven their merit, or even just kept one staff member at the desk and made sure they had plenty of other tasks to do during any quiet time. The way they have done this, announcing the 'de-staffing' of desks and then having to come out and explain the reasons why and talk up the changes to the app and promise that things will be better in the new system, all this seems to have been done back the front and only made their life worse and created a PR problem at the worst time.

I think by now most long term Qantas users know that this is the tired old story of reducing cost by reducing service and attempting to put a positive "it will be better for you" spin on it. Is anybody really taken in anymore ?

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

19 Jul 2020

Total posts 1

You have perhaps answered this yourself Denis without saying it. Most Long Term Qantas users may see this as the tired old story, but it is the 'young-term' Qantas users, those embarking on their long-term pursuit of lifetime status and who have only used technology, that will be 'taken in' by this. In 30 years, they will be the long-term Qantas users arguing against the unnecessary installation of service desks, under the guise of 'better service', that may put the price of their ticket up!🙏

11 Jul 2020

Total posts 70

I would be interested to know if they surveyed any platinum or gold Qantas frequent flyers or any tier before making these huge changes.  Flying for some people is stressful especially if you have a connecting flight. Knowing their is a central desk located at our major airports where passengers can make a beeline for should they have a problem is a comforting thought. I think having roaming staff is a step backwards but it's a sign of the times, profit before passengers. I think the travelling public are smart enough to see this as a cost cutting measure like the outsourcing of the ground staff. Perhaps the Qantas board should vote to cut Alan Joyce's salary by two thirds until the Qantas reaches a benchmark in profitability however long that takes. That will help the bottom line.

01 Nov 2017

Total posts 7

I was served my a roaming Qantas staff member last year and my experience was good. Due to excess traffic outside the airport on the trackwork bus, I was 2 mins too late to drop off my bag at the automated bag drop for a domestic flight (even though I had printed my bag tag already). The roaming staff member was able to push it through for me, so I was highly appreciative of that.

05 Mar 2015

Total posts 158

I was an early adopter of the domestic 'tap and go' towers at SYD and MEL, wonderful time saver for my trips instead of diverting to the counters, and now like most people here I suspect I do as much on the app as I can. But for me the proof of the pudding will be how quickly and easily I can get assistance when I want or need that personal intervention. Sitting in the lounge and being able to change my seat or upgrade to business class, I'm good with that, but if I need staff to help me with something then it's probably going to be major and important, and that's when I want staff to be on hand, and as a Platinum One QFF member that is one of the reasons I fly Qantas, because I expect this level of service.

XWu
XWu

09 May 2020

Total posts 344

Agreed.

No one will want to line up in a queue for something that they can do it themselves sitting down.

When things go wrong and plans changes, the alternatives and options are often opaque even on the website so I can't see how the app will be better and make up for the human touch 

Air New Zealand - Airpoints

12 Feb 2016

Total posts 22

Yes XWu except that when faced with things going wrong, I am usually able to find a better alternative for me than the service desk who, faced with a queue of people, want to palm you off on the simplest solution for them.  Better to get on the internet and find something that suits me.   I then leave it to my travel agent to sort out the debits and credits with the airline- one reason why i still use my travel agent.  

SMM
SMM

01 Feb 2013

Total posts 16

Absolutely Agree. Being P1 and receiving service when required is important. Apps crash, phone batteries die - cost cutting with no real plan and being P1 since it was started I was NOT asked for input!

12 Feb 2014

Total posts 231

I prefer approaching the staff member at the self serve kiosks if I have an issue. Usually no, to little wait, and saves time standing in a desk queue. I also find staff attitude is a bit friendlier and more helpful. I’m sure a similar approach would work in the lounge. Willing to give this a go as long as there are sufficient staff on the floor. 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

01 Apr 2011

Total posts 41

But if all the ground handling is being outsourced as announced recently, they will not even be "Qantas Staff", they will be Swissport {or whichever company wins the contract) staff wearing a Qantas uniform.  They will not have the same depth of knowledge or ability to fix problems outside of the "canned" solutions for standard problems on their iPad.  Like call centre staff, they will just read a script to you, and if your problem falls outside of what's on the iPad, well good luck with that.  Wonder where this roving staff idea came from, maybe something Ryanair does I suspect.

05 Mar 2015

Total posts 158

This is just baggage handling and some other tasks, it doesn't involve the Qantas staff at checkin desks or who will work at the checkin area, lounges etc.

17 Jun 2020

Total posts 194

So the aim is to get staff from behind the service desks to interact with customers.......yet at the same time cutting 100 of the staff who are meant to going from behind the service desks to interact with customers. Got it.

Joe
Joe

03 May 2013

Total posts 560

Qantas brains trust generally makes these decisions to favour shareholder outcomes, never passengers; they tend to always come second or third..

06 Mar 2020

Total posts 2

Hmm. More choice for flyers to work for Qantas but not get paid for the work.   KW72, have to agree with your comment.

05 Dec 2018

Total posts 152

This model reminds me of an Apple store decentralised staff model, where when busy turns into a hot chaotic mess. 

Qantas

19 Apr 2012

Total posts 1213

Yes I agree instead of a queue at the desk the queue moves to the middle of the lounge and is far less organised and much more queue jumping.

Thai Airways International - Royal Orchid Plus

15 Jan 2013

Total posts 332

i will never take for granted the ease for my qantas bookings dealing with the local office at burnside village or in more recent years the airport.i worry if something goes wrong now.

It sounds like shopping inn a department store--you can never find somebody to ask when you need them.  I've no intention of using an app on my phone, it's too hard to read.  Anyway, I won't be flying anywhere for the next few months, so I suppose all the problems will have been solved by then.  Or am I being too optimistic??

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

14 Apr 2014

Total posts 45

When staff are meant to be on the floor mingling and helping customers, they’ll tend to congregate together and chat. That then leads customers getting the impression that they’re an inconvenience to those staff (some staff give that impression in their attitudes).

We’ve been conditioned over the decades that the person behind the desk is the miracle worker with all the answers. While giving staff an iPad and sending them out on the floor to proactively assist is a noble goal, how does a passenger who needs some assistance know which staff member can help them? Is that person in a Qantas uniform with an iPad hanging around to help, or are they from the admin office who just happens to be in the check-in area? This is where having a person behind a desk is useful.

02 Dec 2020

Total posts 1

How about adding those 100 redundant people to your telephone service desks. We had a medical emergency last Dec. and needed to get to Sydney very quickly to catch a flight to Canada and it took two phone calls with wait times on hold of 4 hours and 3 hours. Very poor when a family member is dying overseas. We did get their in time before my 95 year old mother died. Ordinarily we just book online but had some special needs to be addressed and calling was the only recourse. This is not an isolated time... we have NEVER had a call answered by a rep in under 2 hours. Not good Qantas, not good!

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

10 Apr 2016

Total posts 47

My experience with roving staff at the airport is that they are busy hiding or talking to each other.  Behind a service desk with a que there is nowhere to hide.  The pressure of the que makes them work more efficiently.

Also, I often use the staff in the lounge to get me on an earlier flight.  Despite be Platinum it only occurs with Qantas if they fear a storm is on the way but with airlines like Cathay flying frequently between Hong Kong and Singapore, it has never failed and their staff in the lounge are exceptional.  Always makes the wife happier when I am home earlier than was planned after being away for the week!

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

16 Apr 2013

Total posts 30

My experiences with ground staff have been mixed over the years. I have had some lovely experiences but i have also had some dire ones. The best ones have been the more casual interactions and banter which sound like that they will stay under the new model. I am a friendly person and a smile and hello always go a long way.

I have been pretty underwhelmed when I have had to go, or chosen to go to service desk for assistance. As a young member with status I was always treated like and inconvenience, its only now that I look older that the customer service has been more consistently acceptable. It always seems that people with more self importance, not necessarily higher status, are willing to push in lines and take a disproportionate amount of staff time for issues. Technology will make a fairer system for the patient ones at the back that have to wait for peoples egos to be served.

I will embrace doing everything I can on the app as to me, like self check in, it means a more seamless, pleasant and equitable airport experience. 

AT
AT

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

14 Sep 2012

Total posts 337

From a friend who is Qantas customer service (CV aside) the #1 question from customers when they have to pay excess baggage at the bag drop area is "why don't you just have a swipe/tap machine right here at the bag drop". Apparently they've been getting that feedback for the last few years.


Hi Guest, join in the discussion on Qantas removes staffed service desks but “more choice” for flyers