Alaska Airlines and the Airport of the Future

Several years ago, Alaska Airlines realized that the way ticket counters were set up didn’t make much sense. People came up to the counter, did their business, and then had to backtrack out to move on to the next step in the process. Back in the day, this may have made more sense since ticket counters were actually used for ticketing and not everyone was passing through the system. But as that changed, the arrangement made less and less sense.

Back in 1997, Alaska Airlines decided to tackle the issue with an internal group focusing on improving the pre-security experience. The result was the Airport of the Future that was implemented in 2002 in Anchorage. The design is now also in place in Seattle with Los Angeles under construction and Portland on the drawing board. The result is a more efficient use of space (50 percent less) and people (more than double productivity). While I was up in Seattle, Alaska gave me a tour of the facility, and I put together a little video (sorry for the shaky hand) showing you how it works.

It’s amazing how much better it feels with the open arrangement like this. There’s nothing worse than finding a long snaking line when you walk in the door. This eliminates that completely.

The basic idea was the now-patented two step process. You walk up to a kiosk to start and do what you need to do to get checked in. Then you move on behind the kiosks to check your bag, if needed. There are lobby assistants around the area to help everyone, including those who might not be pros with technology. Instead of reaching a dead-end at the ticket counter and having to backtrack, you just keep walking forward through the system.

The process worked so well that there have been very few tweaks since the first installation. It’s mostly been around ergonomics – height of the computer, bag belt speeds, etc. All minor stuff. In the future, the hope is that the FAA will allow for self bag-tagging and that will speed up the process even more. (A test is underway.)

My biggest question – why hasn’t this happened in other places? There are a few reasons. First, sometimes the economics don’t work. Alaska won’t do it unless a payback will happen within about 2.5 years. In Seattle, the project cost $26 million and the business case was solid. In a place like Portland, however, Alaska is hamstrung by a long term lease, so it couldn’t generate the savings by giving back counter space. I’m assuming something is changing in that regard since Portland is now being revisited.

In LA, it’s different. Alaska finally got through the complicated web there to move over to Terminal 6. Since Alaska was on a month to month lease at LAX, it had a lot more flexibility. That will be done next year.

But what about other airlines? Alaska patented the process but it opened it up so the industry could use it. So far, there isn’t much of that. Delta has done a little of it in Atlanta, but it’s not quite the same. So why haven’t others done it? Part of it may simply be the availability of capital. Most airlines don’t make sustained profits and so the idea of spending money on something like this might not be at the top of the list when other projects seem more important. The money just isn’t there.

Hopefully something will change, because the Airport of the Future is a much nicer experience to start the trip than using a traditional counter.

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34 Comments on "Alaska Airlines and the Airport of the Future"

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Jake (dctravel)
Guest

Thanks for putting this video together. I was wowed by this when I flew through Seattle at the beginning of the month. Seems much more efficient than the traditional check-in. Very glad they have employees available to guide new customers, however, as I was a little disoriented by not having the traditional counter. Seems like they have taken what Delta has tried to do in places like ATL to the next level!

Neil S
Guest

Isn’t this already happening around the world? At YUL, in the terminal for flights to the US, there are kiosks and small counters, and then you keep moving forward into customs and baggage check. And at the Lufthansa terminal in MUC, you do put your own baggage stickers on, from the kiosks. And then move into security. (Or you can stand in a long line.)

Sanjeev M
Guest

Yes, but in the US agents must still tag our bags, even if we print the tag. Lufthansa even has that self-boarding at FRA and MUC, which CO is trying out at IAH.

In the end, if the people using the system are first time travellers or not very technology savvy, then this will be just as slow as before. However, space wise it makes the airport experience look cleaner and staff can help those with more need.

David SF eastbay
Member
Looks like something you would have to see and deal with in person to decide how it works for you. I wonder how many people each day walk in and have no idea what to do. People didn’t know what to do when there was only one line….lol. While AS may be big in Seatlle, there are bigger airlines in other larger airports that control more space, with more service and people. Could it work for a larger carrier, would there be enough space so spread the same amount of people into the different ‘steps’? How many people can their… Read more »
David @Cardviews
Guest

I wish other carriers would copy Alaska Airlines too. It seems like Southwest is the closest thing to it. What do you think?

travelnate
Guest

Alaska just updated the counters here in Juneau using the counter “PODS” and the agents love it a lot more. Each position has dual kiosks on each side with their own mini-bag belt. The agents here said it really has made their jobs easier, especially since the belts weigh the bags and can move them forward to tag the bags.

Alaska is definitely a smart operation!

Nick Barnard
Member

One of the important things for this, is it also allows you to see where you’re going next. That apparently is psychologically calming and makes the experience much better.

Chris
Guest

WN does something similar to this at LGA. When it first opened LGA converted an opening between the counters to a hallway into the WN gates. There’s the traditional line then you move forward to four staffed kiosks (two on each side of the opening). After weighing and tagging you continue into the hallway to TSA drop off.

andy.eakin
Member

Brett – have you seen what Air New Zealand has done with their domestic checkin? Self service at kiosks and self tagging. Been in operation for a few years now. Very efficient.

More recently they have extended it to trans-Tasman flights to Australia. Seriously speeds up the check-in process, and cuts down the number of staff required.

A
Guest
This seems like what I’ve seen at many Canadian airports for US bound flights where you pass behind the ticket count with luggage in tow as you head towards US customs pre-clearnace and the baggage belt. The issue seems to be that many “classic” ticket counters have the baggage belt right behind the counter, thus no way to pass thru. I think this process is obsolete. These days with TSA doing baggage checks for checked luggage I’d prefer to be present when/where this is done. (More than a few TSA agents have been caught with sticky fingers.) I like the… Read more »
martin
Member
Brett, you have seen the Air New Zealand check in system.How similar is this to the layout at Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch airports. Its been going for a couple of years now and is marvellous. I have never seen a line at AKL, WLG, CHC. As a Premium customer, I use the self check in even with a Premium desk provided. They have now extended it to NZ- Australia flights for check in. NZ, of course, allows pax to self tag their bags. By the by, I just flew on Air NZ Business class in one f their brand new… Read more »
Ryan
Guest
martin
Member

@Ryan, Thanks. Yes, I read the post. That was actually what I was referring to. I am interested in the comparison between the two systems.

@Andy E, I missed the fact you posted a similar comment! I completely agree with you and not seen in it anywhere done as well. Qantas has attempted but I think their system is cumbersome.

Ryan
Guest
Oh my bad, I misread your post and realize now you were referring to this. I work for Alaska and have used the system in WLG before. The biggest difference is that Alaska doesn’t allow you to tag your own bags…yet. We are working on testing that and should have it available in the not too distant future. But the Alaska process doesn’t take much longer because there are hardly ever any lines to get your bag tagged. We also allow check in on mobile phones and your phone can be scanned at security and at the gate in a… Read more »
martin
Member

Ryan, the other difference is the accent of course! Air NZ have basically eliminated check in for customers who travel sans luggage.. straight to gate in NZ. PS Not bad at all!

Roneill000
Member

I’m not seeing much new from what Delta has been doing at ATL for quite some time. The only time I interact with anyone from Delta on the ground is that rare occaision when I check a bag and again when my boarding pass is scanned. I’ve never even had to wait for a kiosk should I, for example, want to change my seat assignment.

Phil
Guest

Delta has implemented this at MKE.

passtravelfool
Member

Actually, Delta is doing that in a lot of places. In addition to MKE and ATL mentioned above, its also been completed for quite some time in DTW and MSP.

Henry Harteveldt
Guest

This “flow through” arrangement reminds me of what United had in the 1960s (and maybe even into the 1970s) at a few airports, two being LGA and ORD. UA had “islands” in the main hall where pax would drop of their bags; the island had a bag belt to allow the entire check-in process to be conducted.

The AS process seems very intelligent. If airports were smart, they’d encourage more airlines to adopt this, thus freeing up more space for concessions.

Paul
Guest

Great article- I flew LH through Munich this summer and they had a similar set up – you go to a kiosk to obtain your boarding pass, then either exit to the side or go further to immediately get your bag checked. worked great!

Carl
Member

On the one hand, the Alaska set up at SEA works pretty well – but it doesn’t seem that revolutionary. Step one, use kiosk to check in and specify bags. Step 2 drop off bags. Not sure why that should be patented. Delta has had a variation of this for a long time. Turning check-in desks 90 degrees – many international airports does this, too. 2 belts on either side of agent does seem to be efficient.

Mostly seems like small incremental improvements, but not revolutionary.

Volunteer in Africa
Guest

I haven’t come across this before, thanks for the video and article. It makes a great read / watch. Hopefully this will be implemented in more and more places as it looks like a much easier / quicker / stressfree way of checking in!

Steve B
Guest

Hi There

It would be great to understand the business case created to implement the changes to the airport which Alaska Airlines created as I am currently woking at BNE airport and we are looking to develop and implement a better customer experience at the BNE airport. Is there a possibilty to read through this business case of Alaska Airlines?

J. Lee
Guest

Very similar to the setup at all counters in Vancouver (YVR). Someone else mentioned US bound flights from other Canadian airports. At YVR all counters, including domestic, are like that. It’s just one of the things that makes YVR my favorite airport.

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[…] 6.  That place needed to be fixed up, and Alaska has done an extreme makeover, bringing its Airport of the Future concept to the place.  It will be open later this month.   Long Beach LAX may try to hog all the […]

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[…] the place. Take my 3m46s video tour which starts at the third installment of Alaska’s “Airport of the Future” ticket counter concept. (One of these days, I’ll make a less shaky […]

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