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...


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.

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