A couple of weeks ago, Alaska Airlines announced it would start aggressively rolling out self bag-tagging for its customers. This might sound like a little thing but it was a painful process to finally get government approval. I spoke with Jeff Butler, VP of Customer Service – Airports for Alaska to understand what really went into this.
It sounds so simple, and for those outside of the US, it is. When people go to check a bag in many places outside the US, they can go to a kiosk, print out a bag tag, and put it on the bag. Then they drop it on a bag belt and go on their way. In the US, however, that wasn’t allowed.
The TSA was overly concerned about security. It was all about “control of the bag tag.” There was this thought that if people could print out the tags without having an airline employee watching over them, they could find a way to get a bag on an airplane without actually getting onboard themselves. I have a hard time seeing this as a real threat since bags are scanned in multiple places along their journeys before they get on an airplane, and certainly if people can print their own boarding passes, there’s more danger in that. But that doesn’t matter; the feds set the rules.
So Alaska participated in a trial with the TSA to allow this to happen. It set up shop in Redmond, Oregon. American applied for a test in Austin and Air Canada did one in Boston. The idea was to prove that letting people tag their own bags wouldn’t be the end of the world. And that, they did. During the six month test, each airline had to collect reams of data regarding the technology, volume of bags, customer feedback, etc. This all had to be submitted to the feds.
Over the next year, Jeff and the Alaska team were back and forth to Washington multiple times to try to finally get them to agree that self-tagging wasn’t this horrible safety risk. After a year, it is finally in place, but there are restrictions.
Not Quite Self-Checking
As it is now, the TSA has set up a program where airlines can apply to have their passengers be permitted to self-tag but not self-check. This application involves a crushing amount of paperwork. To make things even more cumbersome, airlines have to re-apply for every single city in which they want to do this. Jeff is hopeful that this cumbersome application-by-city issue will disappear soon enough.
Alaska jumped on the application process as soon as it could and started things in Seattle. You can now find about a dozen of the kiosks on the southern side of Alaska’s check in area at Seattle. Machines are coming to the north side as well. The process works like this.
You have to go inside the terminal because the TSA has not approved this for curbside. (I really wish I knew of any kind of rationale here.) Once you head inside, you go to a kiosk just like you normally would. Previously, you would say how many bags you needed to check and then you would go over to a podium and give your bag to the agent. The agent would tag your bag and send it on its way. The only difference now is that you print out your tag at the kiosk, put it on the bag, and then give it to the agent.
That’s right. The TSA still won’t let you put your own bag on the belt. You have to give it to the agent where the agent then scans it and sends it. Apparently this is all part of the TSA’s obsession with controlling the bag tag. Every tag that is printed must be tracked and only a fraction of a percent are allowed to not be put into the system as planned. Technically, if someone prints a tag, messes up, and throws it away, Alaska is supposed to go and fish it out of the trash can. Is this really worthwhile?
According to Alaska, yes. It has seen 30 percent less processing time for someone who just drops off the bag versus someone who needs to get the tag printed out by an agent. So if Alaska can shave 30 percent off the process, it’s a good thing. And the airline is going all-in here.
New cities will all have self-tagging when they open. That includes Ft Lauderdale and Philly. Any remodels or expansions will also be met with self-tagging capability. That’s why you’ll find it in Monterey and in San Diego. And the rest of the stations will get the new kiosks as soon as they are replaced on their normal cycles, about 25 percent get replaced each year.
Where this gets really interesting is what it means for the future. Hopefully this is the small opening that we need to do what we should already be doing today. I hope we’ll soon see people able to print their own bag tags at home and then just drop the bag off when they get to the airport. I hope that we’ll also see permanent bag tags for frequent fliers. Just stick some sort of RFID chip on your bag and the sortation system will know where to send it. But we’re not there yet and the TSA is standing in the way. With any luck, this change here will make it easier to get further improvements pushed through in the future.