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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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