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Ruination of service industry just plane ridiculous

By Jane Merrick

Standing at the Norwegian Airlines check-in desk at Gatwick, I waited for my suitcase, which I'd just heaved on to the weigh-in scales, to do that reassuring jolt backwards on to the main conveyor belt and on its way to the plane. But instead it just sat there.

A woman in a fluorescent vest loitered, so I called her over. "Is there something wrong?" I asked her. "Yes, you have to scan the label yourself."

Perhaps it was because I'd had only two hours sleep, or perhaps because I'd already had to do everything myself – from checking in at a machine to working out which way the sticky bit went on the luggage label – that I wailed, "What next, do you want us to fly the bloody plane ourselves?"

It wasn't just me – there was (literally) a plane-load of confused passengers bound for Helsinki being forced to do all the work and having to ask staff for help, meaning that the whole process took far longer than if there had been a normal check-in desk operated by people who knew how to do luggage-label origami.

In Scandinavia, where it's assumed people are generally happier, they love this kind of do-it-yourself service: at the petrol station, you have to pay by card at the pump, working out how much a tank will cost before filling up.

Back in the UK, we drove into a Sainsbury's petrol station looking forward to some old-fashioned customer-retailer interaction only to find the same DIY pay-first procedure has arrived in this country.

The service industry – the engine of our economy – is turning into the non-service industry and I don't like it. Self-service check-outs (which I refuse to use) have been in supermarkets for ages, but this habit is spreading. Airlines and retailers must assume they are "empowering" the customer by giving them control over their flying and shopping, but it is actually a way to just keep staff costs low while tills keep ringing.

It is not just the service industry, but the public sector, too: when I turn up at my GP surgery for an appointment I have to check myself in at a computer, including touching the screen where it says 'Arrive Me' – a travesty of grammar as well as service.

The concept of service is dying out. Bad service can be appalling, but good service is a joy to experience. When so much of our lives is conducted in the digital world, face-to-face interaction with another human being is precious – and increasingly rare.

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