Alaska Offers Self Bag-Tagging After Feds Finally Ease Restrictions

Alaska Airlines, Baggage

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.

TSA Lets You Tag Your Bag

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.

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42 comments on “Alaska Offers Self Bag-Tagging After Feds Finally Ease Restrictions

  1. Qantas does self-tagging in the domestic terminals in Australia (at least in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, and Brisbane). It’s super-easy and works very well. They also do the permanent bag-tag thing, although since it’s for QF frequent flyer members (and I use AA when flying QF), I haven’t been able to try it. But it’s a great idea in concept.

    1. It’s also available from Adelaide, but I didn’t see it at Cairns when I was there in December. Super-slick process, really. The scanner on the bag belt can read the tag from lots of different angles. There was a staffer running around to deal with any major issues, but most people were just checking their bags in and heading to (pre-TSA-style) security without needing to interact with anyone.

        1. Qantas’ permanent RFID Tags are built on an IATA Standard, but so far, only are available from Qantas. They can be used at all Australian Qantas points, even if they don’t have the self-tagging and bag drop. All check-in counters have the scanner. It is amusing seeing the counter staff get annoyed if your luggage doesn’t have the tags when you are a gold frequent flyer!

  2. I don’t know what it is with the US’ lack of trust of other countries decisions (not just in aviation). Clearly if bag drop is being done somewhere else esp. somewhere relatively safe like Australia, then its gonna work just fine in the US.

    All I really want to see now is the KABA self boarding like LH has at FRA and MUC. CO tried it and DL is trying it. It’s so much more civilized than normal boarding and the elites don’t show off. Connecting to FRA-MUC I saw that the agents was free to help a rebooking for some passenger at the podium instead of scanning BPs. (Yes there were two agents working FRA-MUC despite just 20 passengers on the A320, so much for CO agents complaining about job loss)

    1. I wonder if the unions would through a fit at a KABA system? Not to mention Katie Hanni complaining about passengers having to do more work.

      Reminds me a bit of when U-Scan came into grocery stores.. Initially people thought it was a horrible idea, but now it gets a good bit of use.

  3. Just did the self tagging when heading out of Seattle last Friday. It was very easy. The only difficult part of the process was dropping off the bag, and waiting for the agent to explain to the confused passenger ahead of me that he was in the wrong line. Would be great to just be able to drop it off. :)

  4. Do you still have to show your id to the agent when you hand them the bag to put on the belt?

    As for printing your own luggage tags at home, not sure how that would work in practice: the tags aren’t just printed on regular laser printer paper. The tags have the sticky/glue stuff on one side and are made out of material that prevents tearing. Should be easy enough to have a bunch of machines at the airport that let you scan your self-printed boarding pass and then print the pre-selected (and pre-paid) number of tags for that traveler.

      1. Well I haven’t had that experience.. But the Alaska page says “…and then, in one step, show their identification and drop their bag off with an airline representative.” So I take that as a yes.

  5. Looks like the airlines are wanting to take the fun away from check-in agents by using this process. Ask any old time airline workers from the glory days of air travel how much enjoyment they got from dealing with crabby/bitchy/uppity passengers by ‘forgeting’ (wink wink) to put their bag on the belt until after the flight left. Or nicely checking in the passenger to Miami, but putting a bag tag for Omaha on the luggage to get back at them.

    The new system doesn’t allow for that, so it’s another reason for an airport worker to not like their job :-)

    Ah, I miss my days at the airline and hearing the stories from the old timers of what airport and onboard workers used to do to get back at crabby/bitchy/uppity passengers.

    1. Well routing the bag to Omaha sadly went out when we got to the computer printed bag tags.. I remember the old racks of tags for every city you could get to in the system and the hub slip over that went with it.. I always remembered BGM with a PIT overslip.

  6. I’m surprised you didn’t mention today Alaska’s decision to stop the First Class Companion Fare through their Signature Card froom BofA. We live on Maui, and use two cards frequently to travel to the mainland. This decision will cost us several thousand dollars. I have emailed Mr. Tilden and Ms. Boren to state my concerns. Now, it will cost me 60,000 miles for me and my wife to upgrade to FC once we have purchased our coach “U” ticket and companion coach ticket at $99 (which is really $120 + the $75 yearly fee). What a bargain! What are your thoughts?

    1. We just got our letter over the weekend. Kind of a shock as we also use two cards and have usually travelled first class on the companion fares. We live in Alaska, so to get anywhere on any airline costs a bundle – I can fly to Mexico from Anchorage for less than flying from Anchorage to Seattle. But I digress – the letter didn’t offer a whole lot of upsides to take away the downside. BTW – the companion flight is now $110 instead of $99. In short, we’re still analyzing the impact to our travel.

      1. The new companion flight is still $99 – they just have to advertise it as $110 now that they have to disclose all taxes and fees upfront. The coach companion ticket is the same as it has been.

    2. Itan2Much – Why are you surprised? I don’t write about frequent flier/credit card issues that often here. Sometimes they grab my attention but not frequently.

      Anyway, for ancsteve, the price of the companion pass has not gone up. It’s just that the federal rules now require including taxes in the amount. So it was $99 plus tax before. Now it’s just $110 all-in.

      I am an Alaska Visa holder and we used our companion pass this year for coach travel. Was it nice to have the option to use in First Class? Sure, but it doesn’t matter to me really. It might make me reconsider the card, but it wouldn’t change my mind about the airline. And I never let mileage/credit cards influence which flights I take.

      I’ve seen some of the credit card/miles bloggers make it sound like this is the end of the world, but it’s really not that big of a deal to me. Still it’s definitely a reduction in the value of the card for some people and that may push people think think about using a different card.

  7. I don’t understand how TSA’s requirement that an Alaska employee (instead of the customer) actually places the bag on the belt makes it less likely that the passenger will be able to find a way to get a bag on an airplane without actually getting onboard themselves. The customer can just as easily leave the airport once the Alaska agent has lifted the bag onto the belt.

    Also, if customer loading of bags is a threat to aviation security, how does TSA justify the process at old, unretrofitted airports like LaGuardia, where the airline tags the bag, but the customer has to walk the bag over to the TSA scanner for drop-off?

    1. Craig – Well the Alaska employee has to scan it and then push it in. So I’m guessing that the TSA doesn’t believe there’s a way to make the passenger scan it alone? I don’t really get it.

  8. Oh my. The idea of a permanent luggage tag *that worked across all airlines* just made me weak in the knees. Imagine…

    1. Go to the airline website to check in for your flight. Indicate the number of bags, input your secret permanent bag-tag code(s), pay for the bags if necessary, print out your boarding pass.

    2. Next day, go to the airport, hand your bags to an agent, walk to the gate.

    3. There is no step 3.

    I think it’s because I always end up in the line with the family of 8 screaming children that has six golf bags and a set of barbells to check that the idea of this is so appealing.

    1. Heck, the idea of a permanent luggage tag, period (instead of one that rips off the luggage every third flight) would work for me!

  9. As usual none of what TSA does makes sense and if it did it would be classified immediately. This is another case of another agency afraid to change what they know for something more efficient. Government agencies are notorious for going kicking and screaming when it comes to new procedures or methods. They will probably give in right before they invent the teleporter.

    1. Bag tags get the bag to the right airplane :-) For gate-checked bags you don’t really need them. Last week I traveled on Delta, got the stroller tagged at the gate of the first flight, then picked it up and rushed across JFK with 3 kids for the connecting flight. When I made it to the connecting flight (with no time to spare) I showed the agent that the stroller was still tagged with the previous flight number. The agent said the tag didn’t matter, because the stroller’s only option was to get on the current plane ? which it did.

  10. What happens when passengers have overweight or oversized bags or need to pay for extra bags – who is going to “police” that ?……Great, just another method to do away with all human interaction. Thanks Alaska Airlines.

    1. Believe it or not some passengers don’t want employee interaction and want to feel in control of their travel experience. These decisions are not all just because an airline wants to become more productive. Passengers are asking for this stuff. In the service industry isn’t the customer always right?

      1. I don’t mind the human interaction at all. But I don’t want to stand in line for a long time, and for some reason the airlines (and grocery stores) wound rather provide more self-service kiosks than employees.

    2. Presumably th kiosk will have a scale for weight and require credit card payment if the bag is oversized? Of course, that doesn’t address the oversized question or prevent people from playing games such as weighing the carry-on and tagging the steamer trunk.

  11. So, I’d much expect to see a permanent barcode bag tag before we see an RFID permanent bag tag, since the airlines would have to put in the infrastructure to read RFID tags.

    Although the biggest problem with any permanent bag tag is it takes away the ability for humans to route the bag without utilizing a computer, since they’ll have to scan the bag to figure out where it should go.

    I could see print at home bag tags where you print a bag tag out on a 8.5×11 sheet of paper, fold it down into quarters at 4.25×5.5 and insert it in a permanent/reusable bag tag.. I can even see bag manufacturers working these into the bag somehow. I don’t think anything says the bag tag has to be that long strip it is now — it just is what the industry standardized around..

    1. I just ran across this WSJ article which said:

      Before long, travelers in many countries will be able to print baggage tags at home and insert the bar-coded paper in plastic cases distributed by airlines, similar to baggage tags that many already issue to their frequent fliers, SITA said.

      Seems they will be going the paper bag tag at home route..

  12. Itan2much- you obviously don’t hurt for money if you live on Maui “and travel to the mainland frequently” so quit bitching about no longer getting a bargain. Move to the mainland if money is such an issue.

  13. So I can print my boarding pass at home and go straight to the gate but I can’t print my baggage tag (with one or two employees supervising the whole show), scan it, and send it on it’s way where it will be scanned a zabillion times again?

    Typical inefficient procedures imposed by TSA.

  14. The concern I have with self checking isn’t so much from a security standpoint (I’m sure TSA has their reasons that they can’t really explain in intricate detail lest they “give away the farm” to would-be baddies), but from an airline perspective the wisdom of accepting liability on checked bags sight unseen is questionable. What’s to stop a passenger from checking a bag that is clearly damaged, that the airline would tag as conditional acceptance, thus absolving itself of liability for further damage? CSAs don’t just check bags, they also perform a visual inspection that it’s sufficiently durable to withstand normal handling before they accept liability for it on the airline’s behalf.

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