Fast lane through Sea-Tac; Alaska Air will demolish ticket counter, build passenger self-serve "islands"

When Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport was planning a new concourse, Alaska Airlines insisted on a counterintuitive design: "The one thing we don't want is a ticket counter," said Ed White, vice president of corporate real estate.

So the airline now has one small, traditional ticket counter, even though 1.2 million passengers departed Anchorage on the carrier last year. Since the 2004 launch of the unconventional approach which uses self-service check-in machines and manned "bag drop" stations in a spacious hall that looks nothing like a typical airport Alaska has doubled capacity, halved staffing needs and cut costs, while speeding travelers through the process in far less time.

The Alaska Air Group unit now is bringing an improved version of the design to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which last year handled about 7.2 million departing passengers on Alaska and its Horizon Air regional subsidiary. A local frequent flier will be chosen in coming weeks to preside over the "ceremonial destruction" of part of the old Seattle ticket counter. That will launch a $28 million renovation $18 million to be borne by the airline and $10 million by the airport to be completed early next year.

Passengers walking into Alaska's section at Sea-Tac soon will no longer see a ticket counter with a wall behind it. Instead, they will see open space, all the way to security.

The new check-in process will consist of three "islands," with 50 check-in kiosks and 54 manned bag-check points where passengers will be able to drop off bags on conveyer belts that will weigh luggage, and roaming staff. Two customer-service centers also will be available, according to preliminary designs released by the airline.

Completion of the first island is expected before the holiday travel season. Construction on the two others will continue during the holidays but will not affect travel, White said.

"The thought process behind our check-in process was a facility that really allowed keeping you moving in the same direction and keeping the flow of passengers, a straight-forward flow from the parking garage to the gate," he said.

Most U.S. airports have shallow, rectangular check-in halls with endless ticket counters against the back wall. Lines of passengers typically snake back and forth between the counters and terminal doors, waiting to check bags or speak to agents for assistance.

Most airlines, including Alaska, already have self-service check-in kiosks. Sea-Tac also recently added seven kiosks that allow passengers from five airlines Alaska, Horizon Air, Continental, Northwest and United to check in. Passengers with no luggage to check are able to head straight to security, but fliers needing to check luggage or pets, buy tickets or ask for other assistance still stand in line.

Together, Alaska's project and Sea-Tac's new kiosks are part of the airport's plan to expand its capacity by more than 50 percent without building new terminal facilities, said Mark Reis, managing director of Sea-Tac.

Taking a cue from Canadian airports, officials hope to expand kiosks to hotels or popular tourist destinations, so passengers can check in before arriving at Sea-Tac.

Patented process

Alaska's design in Anchorage has turned heads in the industry, and the airline last year was awarded a U.S. patent for the check-in process. White said his company isn't trying to keep competitors from going down the same path, but pursued the patent more to reward employees who helped to bring the idea to fruition.

Other airlines, including a team from Delta Air Lines, quickly sent scouts to Anchorage. Delta completed a $26 million renovation of its check-in hall at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport a few months ago, and the finished product looks remarkably similar to that of Alaska Airlines.

Greg Kennedy, Delta's vice president for customer service in Atlanta, said the new layout has enabled the airline to process passengers checking in during the peak spring-break travel period in 20 to 30 minutes at most, compared with two or three hours three years ago. Kennedy said he isn't aware of a visit to Anchorage but doesn't dispute it.

Jim and Bobbi Davidson, in Anchorage on a recent Sunday morning for their flight home to Portland, were enthusiastic about the check-in process. "I thought it was kind of cool and really fast," said Davidson, a move coordinator for United Van Lines. Her husband liked the "roomier" lobby. "I'd be interested to see this at Seattle and Portland, where there are more passengers," the Oregon Air National Guard sergeant said.

Portland is on Alaska Air's wish list for the new layout, along with San Francisco; Oakland, Calif.; and other busy West Coast airports. Juneau, Alaska, will be getting the treatment next year, and modified forms are in place in Alaska's stations at Los Angeles International Airport and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. But it's often difficult to make existing space work or persuade airport authorities who have the last call to deviate from the tried and true.

Benefits underestimated

To hear White tell it, those who don't follow Alaska Air's lead are losing out. "We grossly underestimated the benefits" of the new process, he said.

In Anchorage, the airline expected a 20 to 30 percent increase in agent productivity but in fact cut agents' times with passengers in half. While the number of Anchorage passengers has increased by 9 percent since the new concourse opened, the airline not only hasn't increased agent staffing but has reassigned some agents to other duties. No jobs have been lost. And a third bag-drop station in the lobby, not needed now, has been leased temporarily to Northwest Airlines.

On a peak day in the summer, when tourists abound, a passenger might spend 15 minutes in the Anchorage lobby, said Mary Quantrell, Alaska's Anchorage station manager. But the wait drops to less than two minutes at off-peak times. No industrywide average check-in time is compiled.

"When you board 20,000 passengers a day, if I save 10 seconds with each passenger, that's a lot of minutes," White said.

The proof of the concept came in May 2003 when Alaska had a miniprototype set up for testing elsewhere in the airport. Two tour buses with 90 people showed up on short notice, and the airline figured it would have to hold the flight. But the lead customer-service agent decided to use the prototype. The entire group was checked in 20 minutes later, and the agents, who had had trepidations about the concept, became instant supporters.

New terminal may wait

If productivity skyrockets in Seattle as it did in Anchorage, Alaska can make do with its existing premises for years instead of having to build a new terminal.

Reis, Sea-Tac's managing director, said the plan represents "a much more efficient use of the real estate we already have." He said he supports the airline's innovation, but insisted on having his technical staff tweak the design to ensure that passenger flow would be as efficient as Alaska hoped.

"At times, there were tensions," Reis said. "We had dynamic but productive conversations over the right way to do this." The changes refined placement of kiosks, bag-drop positions and the distance between the bag belts to provide maximum processing capability.

Alaska, the nation's ninth-largest carrier by traffic, started a "skunk works" lab a decade ago to figure out how to use technology to make air travel less of a hassle for passengers. Out of that effort came the airline's ground-breaking ability to sell tickets on the Internet and allow fliers to check in online, developments other carriers quickly followed.

One idea the lab tried was an utter failure: self-baggage check-in. "People wouldn't do it," White said. "There was an inherent distrust in not having to wait in line for something."

They couldn't figure out how to get the bag tags on the suitcases and worried that the luggage wasn't going to make it to the correct destination, he said. So with an agent at the new bag-drop position, "that seals the deal with the customers," he said.

Seattle Times staff reporter Manuel Valdes contributed to this report.