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.


34 Responses to Alaska Airlines and the Airport of the Future

  1. Jake (dctravel) says:

    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!

  2. Neil S says:

    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 says:

      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.

    • CF says:

      I think this is done to some extent in some places but not in quite the same way. Just turning the counters sideways is easy. You see that in many places with new construction – in the US SFO’s international terminal and the new terminal in Indianapolis come to mind.

      But the idea here is that the counters are used solely for bag checking. Most places I’ve seen still have the traditional counter functions just in a slightly different layout. With Alaska, you’re getting your boarding pass from a kiosk no matter what, then you just drop the bag at the counter and move on. That’s the sole purpose of the counter.

      The self-tagging is something that will eventually come to the US but the feds prevent it from happening now.

  3. 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 process handle an hour?

    • CF says:

      Just during my time there, it seemed like a fair number of people did walk in and weren’t sure where to go. That’s where the lobby agents really did their job well. I was just waiting there looking for the person I was meeting and a lobby agent was in front of me quickly asking if I needed help. So the confusion factor has to be pretty low because of the guidance that the lobby agents provide.

      The counter agents used to be able to help about 20 people per hour in the old configuration. In Anchorage when this launched, it went up to 55 to 60 per agent and they’ve seen as high as 70+ per agent in Seattle. It’s huge for productivity.

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

    • CF says:

      I haven’t seen Southwest do this, but it sounds like maybe they do in LaGuardia per Chris in the comments below?

  5. travelnate says:

    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!

  6. 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.

  7. Chris says:

    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.

  8. Andy E says:

    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.

    • CF says:

      As was linked in another comment, I’m very familiar with what Air NZ does and I wrote a post when I had the chance to try it out. I think that Air NZ’s operation is fantastic and it’s a similar idea. Air NZ is lucky in that the domestic security requirements are less in NZ so it can do more than AS can (self tagging, for example). It’s also a much smaller operation that what Alaska does. I’m not sure if that can hold up in its exact form with a much larger options, but the concept is similar – keep people flowing.

      • There was one time the NZ system was a disaster and that was when the luggage conveyor broke down.

        Currently, the rugby crowds have been a test of capacity and the system has been working superbly. Be interesting to know the pax numbers for NZ at AKL v AS at SEA.

  9. A says:

    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 idea of passing directly through the ticket counter to security where all luggage is checked and then have a single baggage belt where the passenger can drop their own checked/tagged luggage. This would also give people an opportunity to put liquids or other on-board contraband into their checked luggage instead of tossing it at security.

  10. 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 777-300s. Will blog about that later today! Marvellous!

      • @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 says:

          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 majority of the airports we serve. We do not use RFID tags yet though as we have determined the costs are not low enough for us to justify them yet.

          • 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!

        • CF says:

          Martin – Yes, the systems are similar in idea. I’d say that both have definitely eliminated the need for check in for travelers who aren’t checking bags, but really that’s true for any airline. The key is the interaction with the counters for those who need them.

          Having an open layout lets people pass through and prevents traffic jams so that’s a nice benefit for even those who aren’t checking a bag. But as I mentioned in a previous comment, the Air NZ exact system probably wouldn’t hold up as well for a bigger operation. You simply need more belt space to drop bags if you’re much larger than what Air NZ has today. This helps to accomplish that by putting more belts in rows with people on each side.

          Now, if people can tag their own bags, then the podiums could disappear and the belts could just exist on their own.

          The one thing I will say about Auckland is that you don’t really flow through the system as smoothly as Seattle. In Auckland, you still have to go to one side to get to security. That’s not the case in Seattle where there are open pass throughs.

  11. Shindig says:

    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.

  12. Phil says:

    Delta has implemented this at MKE.

  13. PassTravelFool says:

    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.

  14. 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.

  15. Paul says:

    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!

  16. Carl says:

    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.

  17. 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!

  18. Steve B says:

    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?

    • CF says:

      You’ll have to talk to the people at Alaska about that. I know that they often host people who want to visit and see the operation. Not sure how much they share in terms of financial details, but that’s your best bet.

  19. J. Lee says:

    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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