Hustle & Flow

Alaska Airlines' Airport of the Future makes quick work of getting passengers through check-in.

It's Wednesday morning at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and the United Airlines check-in area is a mob scene. Passengers queue up in a line that runs the length of the counter and doubles back. Customers waiting for agents block the self-serve kiosks. Finished passengers must push through the crowd again. Average check-in time: 25 to 30 minutes.

Down the hall at Alaska Airlines, employees roam a spacious hall, directing customers toward kiosks. Lines aren't more than three deep, and travelers are on their way to security in eight minutes or less. One woman pauses, looking confused, and another turns and says, "It's this new check-in thing. Don't worry, it's really fast."

Moving customers from frustration to relief--in a fraction of the time--has been at the root of Alaska Airlines' Airport of the Future project. The carrier has spent more than a decade designing a better way to get customers through airport check-in, debuting the first iteration in its Anchorage terminal in 2004. Last October, the $3.3 billion carrier began rolling out its redesign in Seattle, where Alaska and its sister airline, Horizon, have almost 50% market share. The project, to be completed in May, has already reduced wait times and increased agent productivity. "People come to the airport expecting to stand in line," says Ed White, Alaska's VP of corporate real estate, who ran the project. "It's an indictment of our industry."

Alaska's embrace of the future came out of necessity. By the mid-1990s, it was running out of space to handle its Seattle passengers. "If you came here on a busy day, it was jammed," White says. A new terminal, though, would have cost around $500 million. Alaska tried self-serve kiosks, but technology alone wasn't the answer. Kiosks were pushed against the ticket counter, which only further stagnated the flow of passengers.

White assembled a team of employees from across the company to design a better system. It visited theme parks, hospitals, and retailers to see what it could learn. It found less confusion and shorter waits at places where employees were available to direct customers. "Disneyland is great at this," says Jeff Anderson, a member of White's skunk works. "They have their people in all the right places."

The team began brainstorming lobby ideas. At a Seattle warehouse, it built mock-ups, using cardboard boxes for podiums, kiosks, and belts. It tested a curved design, one resembling a fishbone, and one with counters placed at 90-degree angles to each other. It built a small prototype in Anchorage to test systems with real passengers and Alaska employees. The resulting minor changes, such as moving the button that sends a bag down the conveyor belt, "increased agents' efficiency and prevented them from straining themselves," says Gordon Edberg, a principal at ECH Architecture who helped implement the adjustments.

The Seattle design begins with a deep lobby where 50 kiosks are pushed to the front and concentrated in banks. "You need to cluster kiosks in the 'decision zones' where passengers decide what to do within 15 seconds," says airline technology expert Kevin Peterson. Alaska placed "lobby coordinators" out front, à la Disneyland, to help educate travelers. The 56 bag-drop stations are further back and arranged so that passengers can see security.

The results? During my two hours of observation in Seattle, an Alaska agent processed 46 passengers, while her counterpart at United managed just 22. United's agents lose precious time hauling bags and walking the length of the ticket counter to reach customers. Alaska agents stand at a station with belts on each side, assisting one passenger while a second traveler places luggage on the free belt. With just a slight turn, the agent can assist the next customer. "We considered having three belts," White says. "But then the agent has to take a step. That's wasted time."

The new design will create significant cost savings. Seventy-three percent of Alaska's Anchorage passengers now check in using kiosks or the Web, compared with just 50% across the airline industry. Forrester Research estimates that it costs airlines $3.02 to process a passenger using an agent but only between 14 and 32 cents for self-service. Alaska, then, is likely to save almost $8 million a year on the Seattle terminal if it converts customers the way it has in Anchorage. And the makeover cost just $28 million. "This design will take us to 2017, at least," White says.

The Seattle makeover cost $28 million, a far cry from a new $500 million terminal.

Alaska plans to roll out its Airport of the Future design in Portland, Oregon; San Francisco; and Oakland, California. And the new system is already being eyed by competitors: Elements can be seen in Delta Airlines' renovated Atlanta check-in area. "Passengers see where they're going," says John Murphy of Corgan Associates, an architect who worked on the Atlanta terminal. "It's intuitive." At London Heathrow's Terminal 5, scheduled to open this month, British Airways is installing an even larger version of an Alaska-style system, with 96 kiosks and 96 bag-drop stations. White says he doesn't mind the copycats. "Our patents were about recognizing our employees more than protecting intellectual property," he says. "We're happy to see others embracing what we developed."

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