Self-serve kiosks crop up in airports all over

Oct. 20--First it was the bank. Then the gas pump and grocery store.

Self-serve kiosks are popping up everywhere. The airport is the latest battleground, where techno-phobes and tech-heads are fighting it out in the age-old debate: customer service versus self-serve.

The tech-heads are winning.

More travelers are checking in for flights online at home, in the office or on a kiosk at the airport, than with an agent at the ticket counter, according to new studies. And it's causing airlines, including Alaska, Delta and even American, to take notice.

It's all because airports across the country, including Dallas/Fort Worth Airport and Dallas Love Field, are approaching record crowds. That means that travelers are looking for new ways to skip the long lines.

"You'd much rather just get on your way," said Henry Harteveldt, an airline and travel analyst at Forrester Research who has studied this closely. "There are very few people who enjoy spending extra time at airports trying to check in for flights."

Two-thirds of U.S. leisure travelers in 2006 checked in for their flights using kiosks, according a report co-written by Harteveldt this year. That's up slightly from about 63 percent in 2005.

But even larger growth is online. More than half of the 100 airlines around the world that responded to a recent survey sponsored in part by Airline Business magazine said they let travelers check in over the Internet and print their boarding passes at home. And 89 of the airlines said they expect to offer the service within the next two years, according to the ninth annual Airline IT Trends Survey, released this week.

On Tuesday, Alaska Airlines unveiled what it calls the Airport of the Future. The airline's lobby in it largest hub, Seattle-Tacoma Airport, is being renovated to feature an army of self-serve kiosks and a separate area for checking bags. When it's done by the middle of 2008, the new, spacious design will cost about $28 million and feature 50 kiosks, 56 bag-drop stations and a smaller area called a customer-service center. The kiosks and bag-drop stations are being grouped into three islands.

The first island, which features 16 bag-drop stations and eight kiosks, opened this week.

"What we're trying to do is separate the customers who have fairly simple transactions and can just zip through the standard check-in area," said Amanda Tobin Bielawski, a spokeswoman at the Seattle-based carrier. "And for the relatively few customers percentage-wise who need a little extra assistance, we have a designated area where those more time-intensive transactions can be taken care of."

The airline is ripping out its old ticket counters and clearing out its office space behind the counters to make room for the kiosks. To ceremoniously mark the occasion, an Alaska Airline executive took a sledgehammer to a portion of the airline's old ticket counter.

Alaska first introduced the multiple-kiosk design without a true ticket counter in 2004 at its lobby in the Anchorage Airport in Alaska. The success there, and the curiosity from other airlines, led Alaska to roll it out in Seattle.

In 2005, Delta began to offer a similar look at its large hub airports in Atlanta and Salt Lake City. The airline grew in Atlanta from 72 kiosks in 2005 to 134.

The airline also more than doubled its ticket-counter positions in its main lobby from 55 two years ago to 122, said Kent Landers, a spokesman for the airline.

But it's safe to say that most of Delta's customers are checking themselves in through the Internet or a kiosk, he said. That's why the airline added a group of bag-drop stations, much like Alaska has, so travelers checking in at home can quickly drop off their checked luggage.

American doesn't offer that at D/FW, but it's seriously looking at rolling out a design similar to Alaska's, said Tim Smith, a spokesman for the Fort Worth-based carrier.

"It's all about flowing," Smith said. "Everybody does not need a ticket counter. ... The answer to that quite simply is kiosks."

The closest American has come to the new design is in its newly built terminal at New York's JFK Airport. There, the airline has grouped ticket counters into islands that are perpendicular to the road out front. When the terminal was first being designed in 1999, kiosks were not as popular as they are today. So, the world's largest airline had to go back and add 44 kiosks in order to meet its travelers' demands.

But for all the growth in kiosks, airline experts say there may not be a move completely away from the ticket counter.

"What most other industries have said is we'll give you a choice, assisted checkout or self-serve," Harteveldt said. There will still be customers who don't want to use the technology or have tasks that can't be handled without an agent, he said.

But airlines certainly welcome the move toward kiosks because it saves them money. Forrester estimates that an airline pays anywhere from 14 cents to 32 cents to check in a customer through a kiosk. That compares with the $3.02 it costs to check in a traveler with an agent.

Beyond the kiosks, airlines are looking for other technologies to speed up the check-in process.

Atlanta is testing the idea of having agents roaming the lobby with hand-held devices that could print out bag tags. It's similar to what car-rental employees do when you return your car.

American and Delta say they are pushing for the Transportation Security Administration to let them text- message a boarding pass bar code to a cellphone and let you get through security that way.

And some day, American would like to let customers put on their own bag tags.

It all speaks to where we are as a society, Harteveldt said.

"We're very self-reliant," he said. "We want the hand-holding minimal where we need it. We don't want it thrust upon us or layered where we feel it's not necessary."

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dwethe@star-telegram.com

David Wethe, 817-685-3803

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