Trying Alaska’s New Kioskless World

Alaska Airlines

You may not have known it thanks to the regular posting schedule, but I was on vacation with the family last week. I’ll have a full trip report to follow, but today I thought I’d talk about how it went using Alaska’s new vision for an airport without kiosks. In short, it was great.

On the way up, we flew from Los Angeles to Redmond/Bend in Oregon. At LAX, we still had to use the ancient, slow kiosks to get our bag tags printed and then go wait in line to drop them. That kiosk really is clunky, and while it didn’t slow us down by all that much, it could have been quicker and less frustrating to use.

On the return, we came back out of Portland, and that is Alaska’s first hub to implement the new system, so I was excited to put it to the test.

I had us checked in using my phone the day before travel. I paid for the one checked bag we needed in the app, and I added my boarding passes to Google Wallet. So, we were all set before arriving at the airport with the one exception being we had to drop the bag off.

The airport is under construction in many areas, so I don’t imagine this is the final setup, but there is now a large space where the counter is gone and instead there are banks of iPads where you can print a bag tag.

You’ll notice that kiosks are still lining the back wall here in Portland. I believe those are there currently to allow passport confirmation for international travel. (At least the signs say something about international travel back there.) I naturally went right to the iPad.

When you walk up, you do not need to tap anything. The barcode scanner is on. I just opened my boarding pass in Google Wallet, and it almost immediately popped up the next screen saying a tag would be printing in 5 seconds. The extra time was there in case I needed to add another bag that wasn’t already in the original check-in.

The bag tags printed in no time. Since we didn’t need to add more bags, I don’t believe I touched the screen once in the entire process, if I remember right. It just did the work after the initial scan.

We affixed the tags to the luggage as normal, and then we followed the sign to step 2, the bag drop.

Alaska currently has a line-minder sitting at the entrance to this area making sure people are actually there to drop bags. In the photo above, you can see a guy who had some long story that I didn’t fully catch, but he needed an agent to help. The line-minder directed him over to the counters next door which were labeled for “Assistance for Dummies.” (Ok, maybe it was just “Assistance.”)

With him out of the way, we walked in and there was another agent halfway down the line with an iPad who scanned the tag and checked IDs to ensure we were good to go. Once that was done, we walked forward to the old counter.

You can see our bag on the right getting whisked away off the scale. It worked like a charm.

The airport was not busy, but it did feel like there were just a lot of agents standing around with nothing to do. My assumption is that over time there will be fewer of them around, because this process is just so quick and simple that fewer people should be needed to assist.

Like I said, there’s construction going on so this may not be the completely final configuration, but after having used it myself, I’m sold on the idea. Buh bye, kiosks.

Get Cranky in Your Inbox!

The airline industry moves fast. Sign up and get every Cranky post in your inbox for free.

25 comments on “Trying Alaska’s New Kioskless World

  1. How smooth is checking in on your phone if you don’t have the app downloaded? I do not fly on Alaska with any frequency, and I would be kind of annoyed to have to install an app just to check in for one flight.

  2. This makes a lot of sense, especially the part about eliminating touches & steps in the process.

    This setup reminds me of the copier/printers in many offices these days, where an employee scans their RFID badge at the copier/printer and the machine automatically starts printing any documents that the employee has sent to the print queue (eliminating the need for the employee to hit a few buttons on the touch screen). Saves time, touches, and reduces the risk for transmission of illnesses (how often do the copier touch screens get sanitized?).

  3. I used United’s bag drop shortcut for the first time yesterday and was similarly impressed. They’ve gone a step further and eliminated the iPads. You just tap your phone at the counter, the tags print, an agent affixes the tag and away you go. It was really fast. Some stations even have it setup curbside, which is really convenient.

  4. But where did they find those ancient (?) credit card terminals that require swiping the card instead of using the chip or tapping?

    1. those ingenico link terminals are definitely NFC tap and chip capable. Seems like it is just a payment processing API issue / question of opting in. perhaps with some more time – they will enable that. i know some people who just live with apple pay these days and dont carry physical cards. definitely a bit annoying that they’re only allowing card-present swipes.

      1. When CF covered this last time I asked the question, and AS said that they were working on enabling chip and contactless, there were just some IT hurdles.

      2. Yeah, it is a bit ironic that you are now expected yo have a smartphone to fly AS, but you can’t pay for your bag with it. (yes, you can pay in the app)

        Seems like a very weird tech issue.

  5. this definitely feels pretty sleek and speedy. those old kiosks can be really clunky.

    that being said, i do see risk for alaska really enraging the small percentage of (perhaps primarily senior) pax who do not have the app / feel comfortable downloading it. For certain edge cases (foreign travelers without cell service in the states or the small percentages of people without smartphones or people with dead batteries), I can see this really alienating and angering them. My parents/grandparents would for sure be angry about having to figure out connecting to airport wifi networks (sometimes require login and/or watching video advert), downloading software (and probably resetting their app store password in the process), maybe creating an alaska account, etc. just to get their boarding pass. Alaska should keep one or two kiosks for these edge case travelers or add boarding pass printer to the ipads. after all-if the machine beneath the ipad can print bag tags, you would think they could print boarding passes without too much extra engineering or expense?

    For me – this change does not save a ton of time. the real bottleneck (when flying delta and jetblue and southwest from NYC at least) is waiting in line to drop the bag AFTER I already printed and adhered tag. This past weekend – I waited nearly 30 minutes to drop bag with Southwest at LGA (despite printing bag tag myself).

    I think real innovation would be introducing self-serve for bag drop as well. Spirit has been doing this for years As far as i can tell, those machines are capable and certified to verify your identity by scanning drivers license, so literally no human contact is required from start to end.

    1. For those without phone service they’ll be able to get service from an agent. They aren’t going away.

      And AFAIK Alaska wants to add the self bag drop.

  6. Did NOT have this experience with Spirit. Ended up waiting in line for 45 minutes because people couldn’t work the “self bag-drop” machine without help from an attendant. Eight machines, one broken, seven people waiting around for help. On average it took about 10 minutes for each person to get past this bottleneck. Now consider they’re a at least 80 people on every flight. Until this bottleneck is resolved, I’m doing everything I can to not check a bag.

    1. Sprit uses a very different solution from Materna that’s a classic kiosk on steroids. It’s designed to enforce bag dimensions, weight, and collect $$$$ if you’re overweight by 1g.

      It’s only in their largest airport locations where the ROI for a machine that costs >$100K + eternal maintenance contracts can offset the generosity of counter agents: FLL, LAS, etc.

  7. I used this at PDX, my home airport, back in June. I don’t often check a bag but needed to that time. My experience left a lot to be desired. That morning was as busy as PDX gets and there tons of people milling around, waiting for and/or not understanding how the new system work, and no Alaska employees to help. Now I’m an MVP gold flyer with Alaska so I could have just gone to the line for that…but it was super long. I eventually got to a kiosk and it worked fine. The next problem was figuring out where the bag drop line was, because there were so many people trying to check in and or check bags it was a sea of a mess and only one Alaska staff member out there for essentially 4 long lines, for the kiosks, to drop bags, assistance and the MVP line, In total, it took me far longer than the old traditional way. I hope they’ve figured it out now. Oh and then as I was at precheck my ktn didn’t somehow get on my boarding pass despite being in my account and on the reservation. I’ll give them a pass and hope it was growing pains.

  8. I fly Alaska all the time. I’m not happy that I can’t print my boarding pass at the airport. After waiting in line behind travelers who can’t find their pass on their phone. Can’t make it big enough for the reader to see. When I go up with my paper pass all ready, I get a grateful thanks from the
    TSA agent. They hate the phone passes. The paper pass also makes it easier when I need to use a partner’s lounge. As stated in above comments, not everyone has a phone or knows how to work one. Especially the elderly.

    1. You can print it by going to the “Assistance” desk. In Seattle, TSA often doesn’t even ask for the boarding pass anymore as they can get the info off your ID which they scan. Although it seems to be every other station for some reason.

  9. I don’t understand the hype over contactless boarding pass printing. Great, avoid contact on a glass screen. How about restrooms, waiting room seats, aircraft seat armrests, table trays?

    I also don’t see the issue with a printer that can spit out baggage tags doing the same with boarding passes. It’s one more printhead.

    1. I don’t think the point is to be contactless for hygiene, it’s to be contactless for speed.

      Alaska did some research, figured out most of the kiosk use was self bag tags, but the kiosks were very slow at this, so they came up with this solution.

      If the kiosk does one thing it can minimize the amount of time that one task takes.

  10. Seattle has this now too but the set up was a little confusing when I tried it… they had the iPads out everywhere and then still had another set of them arranged in a narrow funnel of them in front of the minder person at “station 2″… I guess as a sort of catch all for people who didn’t see them. Of course a bunch of famlies with tons of bags were in that came and seemingly none of them had paid ahead of time, so it was annoying to wade them for no good reason.

  11. (warinnigbegin rant)

    At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man (I’m actually an occasionally grumpy middle-aged man), does anyone else think all this “self-service” has gone a bit far? Online check-in, great, love it. Boarding passes on my phone? Awesome, one less piece of paper to misplace. Printing and attaching your own bag tags? Maybe just a bit much, but certainly better than the system some airlines used to use (JetBlue at JFK in the early days, for one) of you checking in at a machine, then going to a bag desk and waiting for someone to yell your name as the tags came off a printer.

    Where the line gets crossed for me is being expected to schlep my bags halfway across the ticketing area (not exaggerating for a few smaller airports I’ve been in) and then stand in line for anywhere up to 20 minutes for the privilege of handing the bag – the bag I’ve paid to check – to someone.

    (Understandable for the first several years after 9/11 due to space limitations for the new warp-core-sized scanners, but not today.)

    I don’t think it’s unreasonable for airlines to design these new worlds so after you put the tag on the bag you only have a short distance (10 or so feet, maybe?) to take the bag before an airline employee checks your ID and takes it from you to send it on its way.

    Until then I will use curbside whenever possible, and just tip a bit.

    And could we do away with the fascination with iPads? Fine for the employees, for whom portability is key, but if my bank can give me a 22″ touchscreen at an ATM airlines should be able to do better than bloody little iPads.

    Perhaps airlines should sack a couple of Vice-Presidents here and there and stop looking for ways to reduce airport staff.

    Yes, I feel much better now.

    (here endeth the rant)

  12. Maybe I’m missing something here, but I think it’s disingenuous for AS Ato say they’re “getting rid of kiosks.” The iPad is simply a modernized version of the kiosk. Is it faster with fewer touch points? Sure, but that’s just lean/continuous improvement. Please tell me what I’m missing here…

    1. Jason – The difference from an Alaska perspective is that kiosks are third party machines with proprietary software while iPads are off-the-shelf hardware where Alaska controls the software. The iPads aren’t built for industrial use and are less sturdy than the big old kiosks, but with the change in functionality being offered, it makes it lighter touch and easier to consider other options.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Cranky Flier