Nicholas Goldberg: Airports to passengers: Do it yourself

(*_ Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, workers have lost their jobs to automation in the name productivity and efficiency.

But the pace of automation, 200 years later, is truly extraordinary. I was reminded about that last week as I went on my first overseas trip since the outbreak.

For the first time I didn’t see anyone to assist me at Los Angeles International Airport. I checked in at a self-serve kiosk and was unable to find anyone. In the past, someone has always been available to help the technologically impaired.

It was the first time that I hadn’t handed my boarding pass to someone as I boarded the plane. I simply scanned the document and went through an automated turnstile without anyone watching.

Upon my return from Frankfurt, Germany I printed my luggage tags and lifted my bag onto an unmanned conveyor belt. It was then security-checked by the machine, and sent on its journey. This is what the industry calls a “self-service bag drop solution.”

I can’t be sure, but based on what I’ve read, it’s possible that at both airports, my suitcase was conveyed to the plane not by workers but by robots. (Will that help reduce the number of bags delayed, damaged or lost each year — 24.8 million of them in 2018? )

After passing through passport control at LAX I stopped at another self-service kiosk. I was taken by the machine and my photo was used to identify me. The machine then allowed me entry into the country. “Biometric facial comparison technology” was used to identify me. It did not require fingerprints, passports or any other documents. At the end, I handed a piece of paper to a guy who barely looked at it, saying only, “Welcome home.”

(U.S. Customs and Border Protection says machine identification cuts the processing time of a typical Global Entry passenger by almost 90%, from 45 seconds to less than 6 seconds. That means I gained 39 extra seconds to help offset the agonizing 20 minutes or more of crawling through traffic to get out of LAX and onto city streets. I should probably have been disturbed at the creepy sci-fi horror of facial recognition. I could also have found myself exhilarated at the technological marvels of it all. Instead, I was amazed at how insignificant human workers are to this process.

Outside of the terminal, passengers called Ubers for help without taxi dispatchers and were then met by cars we know will soon drive ourselves. With the automated gates, ticket-dispensing machines and free-standing pay stations, workers are hard to find in parking garages.

How long will it be before pilots are replaced with robots that can fly planes safer?

This is the world that we live in. It’s not new or inherently bad. Artificial intelligence, robotics, and computing have made incredible advances that no one would deny. While automation is clearly beneficial for corporations, and it is likely to be good for consumers as well, what does this mean for baggage handlers? Officials at

LAX insist that automation doesn’t necessarily mean less jobs. Often, new jobs are created. For travelers, however, the new mantra is “Do the work yourself”. According to one industry consulting firm, the new technologies allow passengers to take care of most aspects of the administration. This reduces the need for human labor in traditional positions. The country and the world are clearly heading for an extraordinary wave in robotization and automation, not only in travel. In February, the McKinsey Global Institute predicted that 45 million U.S. workers would lose their jobs to automation by 2030. The transformation was accelerated by the pandemic.

McKinsey had earlier concluded that as many as half the jobs people do in the world could theoretically be automated — including not just low-pay, relatively unskilled jobs but also many high-skilled white-collar jobs.

The optimistic view is that technology can reduce labor costs and time, increase safety, efficiency and customer benefits, as well as spurring growth and creating more, better jobs. Some jobs are lost forever, but there is some short-term displacement. Economists claim that the losses have been offset over time.

A 2020 report by MIT’s “Task Force on the Future of Work,” for instance, notes that 60% of all jobs done in 2018 hadn’t yet been invented in 1940. While there were blacksmiths back in the day, their jobs were clearly rendered obsolete by technology. However, no one was able to repair TVs or install solar panels — nor were they airline pilots.

But, some are concerned that the disruption caused this time by automation will be more severe and disruptive.

McKinsey concluded, however, that while the number of jobs will increase rather than decrease in total, this won’t necessarily ensure that low-skilled workers are protected. It will be a difficult and challenging transition.

MIT reported that the United States has not been able to mitigate the effects of technological change on workers, unlike Sweden, Germany, and Canada. Workers are less protected because of weaker unions. The country has not redressed job losses and underfunded retraining programs. Others have stronger social safety nets.

MIT concluded it was necessary to “harvest” the benefits of automation in order to provide opportunity and economic security for workers through broadly shared gains. This seems obvious, but it is something corporations and policymakers might overlook as they rush to retool.

Ask baggage handlers if they are concerned, if possible.


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