Alaska’s Rationale for Killing Kiosks

Alaska Airlines

Alaska caused something of a stir this month when it announced it was removing kiosks from its check-in areas, making it impossible for travelers to print their own boarding passes at airports. There’s a lot more to this plan than just removing kiosks, and I spoke with Charu Jain, the airline’s Senior Vice President, Merchandising and Innovation about it.

Apparently, this all came out of an effort by Alaska to help get travelers to (that’s “to,” not “through”) security faster. The airline says that the amount of time spent in the check-in area wasn’t consistent enough, and it wasn’t low enough. It made a goal of getting people to security within 5 minutes. Here is the new plan as I understand it.

Remember when kiosks were cool and futuristic? Remember when some people were angry that kiosks would replace human interaction? Those days are over. Charu reminded me that Alaska was one of the early movers when it came to kiosks, and now the current tech in the lobby is 20 to 25 years old. It’s time to go back to the future.

If you think about checking in for your flight 20 to 25 years ago, this was pre-smartphone. If you checked in online, you were printing your boarding pass at home. Otherwise, you had to do it at the airport. Today, however, Alaska says 70 percent of people show up to the airport with their boarding pass in-hand, and most of those are on smartphones.

Alaska likes this. Alaska wants you checked in before you get to the airport. Alaska is now going to push you to make that happen.

As part of the airline’s quest to get people to security in under 5 minutes, Alaska examined the whole lobby experience. And to the surprise of nobody, most people use the check-in area to check their baggage. After all, other than the skycap out on the curb, there is no other way to check a bag. Everything else can be done elsewhere.

To check a bag, the first stop is the kiosk, but it turns out that the kiosk experience isn’t all that great for checking bags. The issue is that you can do so many different things on the kiosk that you have to navigate your way through. People were spending 2 to 3 minutes on average at a kiosk, and Alaska felt that was too much.

On top of this, kiosks are somewhat ancient in that they are created by vendors and take ages to push updates through. Alaska was sick of this problem, so it decided to just go to the extreme and scrap them all. And to replace them, the airline would use something simple… an iPad. I’m not kidding.

Not only are iPads easy to use, but they are quick and can be updated any time, as often as Alaska would like. Alaska already deploys iPads for its roaming agents at the airport anyway. Those have more robust functionality, but it’s the same hardware, which makes it straightforward to just add more.

Speaking of functionality, Alaska decided to make these kiosk-replacing devices as basic as possible. They will be able to do two things: take payment for checked bags and print bag tags. That’s it.

Now, when you walk up to the lobby, the iPad will be waiting to scan your boarding pass. As soon as it does, it’ll print your bag tag or you can pay to add a bag if needed. Overall, the average process takes 45 seconds.

This started rolling out in a testing environment last year in San Jose. They learned that there were better container options compared to what they had in San Jose, so now the final product has begun rolling out in a modified format. It is currently in Boise, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Missoula, Ontario, and Palm Springs. The big one to come online more recently was the Portland hub. And just this week, Sitka went live which provides another unique type of station for testing.

Charu told me that accompanying this change is a big communication push, sending text messages and emails to travelers telling them to check in before they leave for the airport. In Portland, the percentage of people who check-in before arriving at the airport has jumped 10 points to 80 percent. They think they can get it to 90 percent.

This all sounds good… unless you’re one of the 10 percent who want to just print a boarding pass at the airport. I couldn’t help but wonder why Alaska wouldn’t have a small group of iPads available that could be used for check-in. Wouldn’t you want to meet your customers where they want to be helped? The answer is no.

As Charu explained, getting a boarding pass is more than that. It’s also a validation that everything is right with the reservation. If the ticket is out of sync or there’s missing information, that has to be rectified before a boarding pass can be issued. If those things can be fixed before someone arrives at the airport, it’s better for everyone involved. The messaging Alaska is using makes it clear: check-in before you get to the airport and everyone will be happy.

But what about those pesky 10 percent of people who still won’t do it? Alaska gives those people two options. First, there will be QR codes all over the airport which link to the check-in page. If you have a smartphone and haven’t checked in, this is the way to go. Alaska has the ability to add to Google and Apple Wallets, so it should be pretty straightforward to keep track of boarding passes. Otherwise, the airline is going old school. You’ll have to talk to a person.

Charu told me that there is no plan to reduce staffing, but staff will end up shifting where they work. There will be more people at the terminal entrance helping guide people where they need to go. There will also be people roaming around the bag-tag iPads. All of these agents can have a boarding pass printed to a remote printer. There will also be a traditional assistance/check-in/ticketing counter where people can go for help. Alaska will not charge for this.

I understand this plan. Yes, adding a handful of check-in iPads wouldn’t be hard. But then again, if someone isn’t checking in prior to getting to the airport, they are very likely not the most tech-savvy person. They might actually like this retro-nineties plan of talking directly to an agent.

This is just the first step in the lobby plan. For those frequent fliers who have Alaska’s electronic bag tags, they’ll be able to skip all of this and go to the bag drop. Other travelers will follow after they tag their own bags. Today it requires going to an agent, having ID checked, and then dropping off the bag. Alaska will move to an automated system in its hubs next year. I assume it’ll work similarly to Spirit’s tech.

I’m curious to see how this all works out. I asked if there was a plan B if they found a certain airport somewhere that had nobody check in online and chaos ensued. I envisioned something like Prudhoe Bay where the workers are coming off the oil rigs. Charu said she doesn’t think that’ll be a problem in those types of markets. They usually see pretty high rates of check-in before arriving at the airport in those stations that get a lot of frequent fliers. If anything it’s the one-off cruise passengers who may struggle more.

If there is a backup plan, however, it sounds like it’s just to utilize the employees to provide customer service to those who need it. Kiosks are so lame and old. Now the cool kids invest in people. Go figure.

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58 comments on “Alaska’s Rationale for Killing Kiosks

  1. As a frequent traveler, this seems like a no-brainer. And it seems like society is finally at a point with technology adoption that 95%+ of people shouldn’t have an issue. But it still feels like there will be stations where this will be harder to manage. You mentioned cruise traffic (infrequent fliers with checked bags) which also came to the top of my mind. Also stations that have international flights (passports), combined with high % of leisure customers, might cause some chaos. There will be some teething but ultimately this is the future whether people like it or not.

  2. They need to keep staff at the ready just in case the Ipad server goes wonky & it does every so often.

  3. I agree that kiosks are often too slow (AA’s painfully so, compared to DL and UA), with too many clicks, but this seems a UX problem more than a technology problem. I have always appreciated the chance to use them for a paper boarding pass, switch a seat, etc. I will miss them and have to say that this change seems pretty customer unfriendly, which surprises me for Alaska.

    At the very least, I hope they pair this with ensuring that nearly every seat at every gate in the affected airports has an outlet, so you can charge your phone. (I suspect they won’t, though.) After taking business calls in a Lyft to the airport, etc., and after a long day of use, my phone is often near dead–which makes me appreciate the security of the paper boarding pass.

    1. This — my phone will never be reliable as a piece of paper. I know Alaska has in-plane power etc. but if my phone dies what happens next? I guess I am just a mid 40s old man. Now get off my lawn.

        1. Cranky

          No. You end up standing in a LONG line (sometimes even if you have status) waiting for a family of five ahead of you talking with the agent about how they can all sit together. probably miss your flight, and then have a discussion with the agent about getting on the next flight.

          I am a United 1K (Two million miler) and I can’t tell you how many times having a United kiosk print my boarding pass at the airport has meant the difference between making and not making a flight.

          The United kiosks also allow me to take another flight if my flight is delayed or if I arrive at the airport early.

          It appears that Alaska did not do its homework to figure out who is actually using their kiosks.

          1. Re printing the pass at the airport to catch your flight, wouldn’t checking in on your phone always be faster?

          2. People like to pound on United but at the end of the day, their technology is really solid. I’m a million miler 1K as well and whenever I try to use the AA app, I’m shocked by everything it CAN’T do.

        2. As long as there is still an option to get an agent to print your boarding pass for free then this is ok. Frontier has no kiosks and no ability to help for free. I had my phone start a software update right as I got to the airport, Frontier had zero way to print a boarding pass without paying an agent fee, even after begging, plus I have elite status. I gave up arguing and continued on, fortunately security just needed ID giving my phone time to restart prior to boarding.

            1. Managed corporate devices may not give users the option. They may decide to force upgrades at inconvenient times.

    2. It’s a UX problem that had been outsourced as much of airline tech is. So I’m guessing when AS decided to build their own they wanted to streamline it as much as possible, thus looking at what people are using it for, and just building that.

  4. A lot of my AS flights involve international segments, and AS generally doesn’t allow me to checkin online (or at the kiosk) for those even though they have seen and scanned my passport countless times. Perhaps they could have fixed that problem before eliminating kiosks.

  5. It will be interesting to see how much pax push back on this, especially at times during the holidays when the less frequent travelers are a greater portion of pax.

    Also, props to Cranky for sneaking a reference to the “Hi, Jack!” joke into the flow chart.

      1. Interesting, thanks. I didn’t realize that it was filmed (but not included) scenes for Airplane!, as I’ve only seen the joke referenced elsewhere. There was even a Dilbert strip about it.

        1. If you are disabled and need a wheelchair, you must talk to an agent – what happens to us? Flew AK this week and the roving agent put us in the wrong line. Major delay for someone who can’t stand for more than a few minutes.

  6. I was the CSM responsible for rolling out kiosks for AA at DCA in the early 00’s. “Rolling out” meaning that I was charged with how to place them in the lobby, and most importantly, how to drive up usage. I was amazed how opposed some people were to using a kiosk. I was given permission to rearrange how our queues were setup. I did so in a way to ensure that anyone insisting on standing in line had to stare at the lightly used kiosks. I had a stack of soon to expire drink coupons in my desk so one day I decided to stand at the entrance area offering free drinks to anyone who would check in at the kiosks. We drove usage from 0 to over 50 percent within weeks.

    Just a little useless trivia to say that this seems like a natural evolution to me. Frankly, I’m surprised it’s taken this long.

      1. It is! I bet he has more. As a DCA addict, nothing would be too obscure or mundane to hold my interest!

  7. This is a cost-cutting move and has to be viewed as much. I am a technology embracer but know that every process has failure points a customer preferences. Removing an automated tool in order to stand in line is a step backwards and not forward

    1. And if DL eliminated kiosks tomorrow, you’d be here on Saturday to describe in copious detail the merits of doing so.

      1. But also why aa and United not doing it makes them the worst airlines ever.
        And he’d probably figure out a way to loop in a359 fuel efficiency vs the 777 somehow

  8. Alaska should just copy what Ryanair does. Charge people US$50 if they want to checkin at the airport instead of online unless the flight was booked in the 2 or 3 hours before departure time and online checkin had already closed. No exceptions for frequent flyer elites. The 10% who won’t do online checkin should rapidly drop to about 1%

  9. FYI, the vast majority of those “one-off cruise passengers” are quite familiar with online check-in. They’ve already checked in for their cruise via app or website, printed off their cruise baggage tags, and saved their ship boarding passes to Apple Wallet before arriving at the airport. It’s about time the airlines caught up with the tech Nana and Pop-Pop are already using.

  10. This is a beg step backward. Technophiles seem to assume that everyone else is into the technology as much as them, and those that aren’t are just intransigents unwilling to adapt.

    When they work, the airline apps can be useful, but they are a pain to use when you have size 13 mitts and use reading glasses. And why is it that even 5G seems to stop working at so many airports? Or the app decides to sign you out right before you need to show your boarding pass? I have the app for my preferred airline, but I don’t want to clutter my phone with all the apps of other airlines I need to fly occasionally (That would include you, Alaska). What about International passengers? That Canadian phone just doesn’t work as seamlessly on US networks as native US phones.

    Saying passengers can just see an agent if they can’t check in on their phone is a cop-out. There is no way I can wait in line, see an agent, explain what I need, and be to security in under 5 minutes, if that is your goal.

    If you current kiosk technology is 20-25 years old, then you’ve been negligent in updating your technology. Other airlines’ kiosks seem to get updated every few years with added features. Instead of relying on passengers’ personal technology, improve your own.

    1. Bravenav – I haven’t flown Alaska in awhile, but I made sure to confirm that they work with both Google and Apple Wallet. That means you don’t need the app nor do you need connectivity, I believe. The Wallets work well and can store the boarding pass. (I just flew WestJet for the first time and they didn’t have Add to Google Wallet. It sucked a lot.)

  11. I did a r/t earlier this week. At both airports I had checked in via app and had my boarding pass on my mobile device but did have to walk through the check-in area with the kiosks. At both airports almost all were being used. Even a queue depending which airline. I’m sure Alaska did their research but old tech or not – it still seems to get used.

  12. The only way I can make this make sense is if it’s ultimately about cutting front-end staff, despite what Alaska says.

    By their description, the underlying problem is with the kiosk hardware and software. So now they’ve solved that issue with iPads and bespoke software. In this new model they will have modern kiosks with printers deployed already. There’s just no way that adding a “print boarding pass” button to the interface would increase the time spent per customer all that much.

    This has got to be about intentionally making the process clunky for people who don’t check in online. That should drive more people to do so, and allow them to drop front-end staff over time.

    1. Part of the problem is it is not just adding a boarding pass button.
      1) It requires a second printer and paper since bag tags and boarding passes are not printed on the same paper.

      2) The program then has to make sure it is sending the right form to the right printer. Increased complexity can led more points of failure.

      1. Both of those “problems” have been solved decades ago. It would be pretty trivial to program it in on an iPad (since they are so easy to use and update, according to them).

      2. Tbh, is there anything besides it being weird that prevents a boarding pass from being printed on a bag tag?

        Really it’s just some text and a barcode. What size or shape of paper it goes on really doesn’t really matter.

        Tbh, I’m amazed airlines haven’t gone to bog standard thermal register paper printers to print boarding passes.

        1. My guess: the prospect of needing to clean up sticky-backed boarding passes from the insides of seatback pockets.

          1. And I would think that the sticky bag tag paper is more expensive than the thin thermal paper or even the older cardstock boarding passes.

            Which I suppose is another argument that this is a cost-saving move: The fewer people that print boarding passes, the less boarding pass paper they have to buy. And they can spin it as a pro-environment move since it’s less paper being used.

  13. Airline also pay airports for the space the kiosk takes up. We always think of airport capacity in terms of gates and hold rooms, but increasingly in a lot of larger airports, it’s check-in space that’s more limited.

  14. I’m guessing this will be more of a problem for people who fly infrequently.

    Captain Obvious

  15. What I get a kick out of is this is all new fancy tech.. but the credit card reader will only allow credit cards to be swiped, no chip cards nor contactless payment.. So that seems so very modern..

    1. Nick – I left that out of the piece, but I did talk about that with Charu.
      She said this is just how it’s getting up and running but eventually they expect to be able to use NFC to allow Apple/Google Pay and and all that. I didn’t get into the details of why it doesn’t work now, but Charu gave that as an example of why they love iPads vs kiosks. When it’s ready, they can push the update out pretty easily and have it up and running in no time.
      Wouldn’t be the same on a kiosk.

        1. Oliver – I believe it has a chip option, though I could be wrong. That really does need to go away if that’s it.

      1. CF- That’s fair. I guess this is an MVP bag tag kiosk. There are still things to be finished.

        Do you know if this was programmed by AS’s employees or a contractor other than Sabre, Amadeus, or some other stodgy airline tech provider?

  16. I loved it when you could print out your bag tag at home. Of course they took that away and now make you pay for an electronic bag tag unless you want to take more time at the airport and print a tag.

  17. The iPad kiosks don’t seem to have scales, so people might end up having to pay for oversized/overweight bags when they try to drop off the tagged bag.

    Also, AS seems to still not be able to handle international itins gracefully, requiring everyone with a passport to show up at the counter before they can get a boarding pass. Any idea if they are planning to fix that?

  18. I do check in on my phone, but I always stop at the kiosk when I arrive at the airport to get a paper boarding pass too. I like having it. I don’t like having to touch my phone against multiple dirty surfaces. I’m 32 so this is definitely not common for someone of my age, but hey, it works for me.

    That said I’m a Delta flyer anyway so, I am unaffected by this change haha.

  19. When I first heard of this I was like oh boy what seething the masses will do. But honestly this doesn’t seem that bad. You can still print a boarding pass at the airport- and come on- how many people who insist on checking in at the airport prefer a kiosk over an agent? They’re keeping the human option and ditching old tech for better tech.

      1. This often happens when getting rid of old tech. Replicating every functionality is expensive and time consuming.

        And Alaska thinks not every functionality is still necessary.

  20. Interesting concept and having dealt with an airline kiosk implementation, anything putting control back onto the airline for development and putting into production will save a lot of time and money.

    Once upon a time I worked at an airline that wanted to do something similar about 10-12 years ago but the technology wasn’t quite there – we called it “webosk.” Think of it to be not dissimilar to the boarding pass computers/printers at a hotel. Customers would use a platform based on a desktop PC with likely a touchscreen monitor to basically use a version of the website to check in and pay for things/print boarding passes. How to package it to make it durable and reliable were two primary issues, but the cost savings over traditional kiosks was immense… think about putting in a new check-in machine for a few hundred dollars versus a few thousand.

    The customer reaction to this will be interesting in the short term. I am confident Alaska will implement this as well as anybody possibly can. We have lately seen the extreme of this with Breeze and trying to force absolutely everything to the phone. That may come some day, but for now having capable live agents I think is an absolute necessity, and is also going to keep Alaska out of DOT/ADA hell.

  21. I bet some of you complained when they went away from paper tickets in favor of paper boarding passes. Why don’t we wait and see how it works out. I fly AS out of Portland so I guess I’ll find out soon.

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