“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.
“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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”