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Where is Everybody? “Humanless” Customer Service is Dominating Travel. Can We Be Heard as Consumers?

DINING. Yeah, we all know about the upgraded LaGuardia Airport in New York. I grew up seven blocks away from LGA, and I worked there for two years, so I can appreciate the array of restaurants, bars, and shops as well as anyone. But last week, en route to my departure gate, I stopped at an airport shop to buy a bottle of cranberry juice and was told that neither cash nor a charge card could be used. I had to download an app onto my phone, which presumably mined my data for the privilege.

In fact, all the restaurants in that particular LaGuardia terminal would only allow phone purchases, even as 5 employees stood idly nearby, unable to assist me. What’s more, the email I received for that juice transaction stated: “For your convenience [there’s that phrase again!], we have opened a tab. Your tab automatically closes in 1 hour. We will send you an itemized receipt once your tab closes.”

Put another way: “You’re in an airport, so you will probably be hundreds of miles away by the time you see your receipt, and disputing charges will be much harder then.”

What Can We Do?


I’m a father, uncle, and part-time college professor, so I spend plenty of time around Generations X through Alpha, and I get it that phones have largely replaced wallets for millions of Americans. 


But what of older Americans? Or those who have trouble using technologies? People who are intellectually or emotionally challenged? What of the economically disadvantaged people who can’t even afford electronic devices—will they soon be ineligible to travel? And what if your smart phone is lost, stolen, broken, or left at home? Aren’t all passengers entitled to buy a $4.61 bottle of juice? 

Even if you do have the necessary tech devices and the ability to use them, many times the apps provided by the big travel companies simply don’t answer our questions or resolve our problems. Online “customer service” is often inadequate. What then?


Why is there is no national conversation about all this? Suddenly travel has become a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. You don’t like the new rules? Then don’t eat. Or don’t fly. Or don’t sleep here. Or just walk.  

Economists always tell us that competition is supposed to make products better and more competitive. Why are they getting worse and shutting us out, many miles from home?


It’s not a mystery. Travel companies are replacing people with technologies for one simple and overriding reason—to save money. Way back in 2006, the aviation press reported that self-service check-in kiosks were saving big bucks: “The dramatic cost savings that can be realized from airline check-in units for repetitive tasks such as printing and distributing boarding passes drops from $3.86 with a gate agent to just $0.16 when customers use a kiosk.” 


Over the last two decades, the nickel-and-diming has continued with downsizing call centers, self-serve baggage drop-offs, and countless other innovations.



Fighting back against such forces isn’t easy for travelers. But knowledge can be helpful:

• When interacting with a travel company, first check the site’s “Contact Us” page to see what communication options you will have.

• Find out if there is a fee for phoning the company.

• People with special physical or mental needs are often offered easier access for customer service. These dedicated lines can be quicker to access and often do not incur a fee for those who qualify.


And here’s one piece of positive news: The FAA Reauthorization Act recently signed by President Biden includes a provision that all U.S. airlines must now provide free, 24/7 customer service access for passengers. It’s a half-step since it doesn’t mandate phone call centers and still allows service to be restricted to “live chats or text messages.” But at least you’ll communicate with a person—hopefully!


William J. McGee is the Senior Fellow for Aviation & Travel at American Economic Liberties Project. An FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher, he spent seven years in airline flight operations management and was Editor-in-Chief of Consumer Reports Travel Letter. He is the author of Attention All Passengers and teaches at Vaughn College of Aeronautics. There is more at

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