Alaska’s Rationale for Killing Kiosks
HomeHome > Blog > Alaska’s Rationale for Killing Kiosks

Alaska’s Rationale for Killing Kiosks

Jul 09, 2023

Alaska caused something of a stir this month when it announced it was removing kiosks from its check-in areas, making it impossible for travelers to print their own boarding passes at airports. There's a lot more to this plan than just removing kiosks, and I spoke with Charu Jain, the airline's Senior Vice President, Merchandising and Innovation about it.

Apparently, this all came out of an effort by Alaska to help get travelers to (that's "to," not "through") security faster. The airline says that the amount of time spent in the check-in area wasn't consistent enough, and it wasn't low enough. It made a goal of getting people to security within 5 minutes. Here is the new plan as I understand it.

Remember when kiosks were cool and futuristic? Remember when some people were angry that kiosks would replace human interaction? Those days are over. Charu reminded me that Alaska was one of the early movers when it came to kiosks, and now the current tech in the lobby is 20 to 25 years old. It's time to go back to the future.

If you think about checking in for your flight 20 to 25 years ago, this was pre-smartphone. If you checked in online, you were printing your boarding pass at home. Otherwise, you had to do it at the airport. Today, however, Alaska says 70 percent of people show up to the airport with their boarding pass in-hand, and most of those are on smartphones.

Alaska likes this. Alaska wants you checked in before you get to the airport. Alaska is now going to push you to make that happen.

As part of the airline's quest to get people to security in under 5 minutes, Alaska examined the whole lobby experience. And to the surprise of nobody, most people use the check-in area to check their baggage. After all, other than the skycap out on the curb, there is no other way to check a bag. Everything else can be done elsewhere.

To check a bag, the first stop is the kiosk, but it turns out that the kiosk experience isn't all that great for checking bags. The issue is that you can do so many different things on the kiosk that you have to navigate your way through. People were spending 2 to 3 minutes on average at a kiosk, and Alaska felt that was too much.

On top of this, kiosks are somewhat ancient in that they are created by vendors and take ages to push updates through. Alaska was sick of this problem, so it decided to just go to the extreme and scrap them all. And to replace them, the airline would use something simple… an iPad. I’m not kidding.

Not only are iPads easy to use, but they are quick and can be updated any time, as often as Alaska would like. Alaska already deploys iPads for its roaming agents at the airport anyway. Those have more robust functionality, but it's the same hardware, which makes it straightforward to just add more.

Speaking of functionality, Alaska decided to make these kiosk-replacing devices as basic as possible. They will be able to do two things: take payment for checked bags and print bag tags. That's it.

Now, when you walk up to the lobby, the iPad will be waiting to scan your boarding pass. As soon as it does, it’ll print your bag tag or you can pay to add a bag if needed. Overall, the average process takes 45 seconds.

This started rolling out in a testing environment last year in San Jose. They learned that there were better container options compared to what they had in San Jose, so now the final product has begun rolling out in a modified format. It is currently in Boise, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Missoula, Ontario, and Palm Springs. The big one to come online more recently was the Portland hub. And just this week, Sitka went live which provides another unique type of station for testing.

Charu told me that accompanying this change is a big communication push, sending text messages and emails to travelers telling them to check in before they leave for the airport. In Portland, the percentage of people who check-in before arriving at the airport has jumped 10 points to 80 percent. They think they can get it to 90 percent.

This all sounds good… unless you’re one of the 10 percent who want to just print a boarding pass at the airport. I couldn't help but wonder why Alaska wouldn't have a small group of iPads available that could be used for check-in. Wouldn't you want to meet your customers where they want to be helped? The answer is no.

As Charu explained, getting a boarding pass is more than that. It's also a validation that everything is right with the reservation. If the ticket is out of sync or there's missing information, that has to be rectified before a boarding pass can be issued. If those things can be fixed before someone arrives at the airport, it's better for everyone involved. The messaging Alaska is using makes it clear: check-in before you get to the airport and everyone will be happy.

But what about those pesky 10 percent of people who still won't do it? Alaska gives those people two options. First, there will be QR codes all over the airport which link to the check-in page. If you have a smartphone and haven't checked in, this is the way to go. Alaska has the ability to add to Google and Apple Wallets, so it should be pretty straightforward to keep track of boarding passes. Otherwise, the airline is going old school. You’ll have to talk to a person.

Charu told me that there is no plan to reduce staffing, but staff will end up shifting where they work. There will be more people at the terminal entrance helping guide people where they need to go. There will also be people roaming around the bag-tag iPads. All of these agents can have a boarding pass printed to a remote printer. There will also be a traditional assistance/check-in/ticketing counter where people can go for help. Alaska will not charge for this.

I understand this plan. Yes, adding a handful of check-in iPads wouldn't be hard. But then again, if someone isn't checking in prior to getting to the airport, they are very likely not the most tech-savvy person. They might actually like this retro-nineties plan of talking directly to an agent.

This is just the first step in the lobby plan. For those frequent fliers who have Alaska's electronic bag tags, they’ll be able to skip all of this and go to the bag drop. Other travelers will follow after they tag their own bags. Today it requires going to an agent, having ID checked, and then dropping off the bag. Alaska will move to an automated system in its hubs next year. I assume it’ll work similarly to Spirit's tech.

I’m curious to see how this all works out. I asked if there was a plan B if they found a certain airport somewhere that had nobody check in online and chaos ensued. I envisioned something like Prudhoe Bay where the workers are coming off the oil rigs. Charu said she doesn't think that’ll be a problem in those types of markets. They usually see pretty high rates of check-in before arriving at the airport in those stations that get a lot of frequent fliers. If anything it's the one-off cruise passengers who may struggle more.

If there is a backup plan, however, it sounds like it's just to utilize the employees to provide customer service to those who need it. Kiosks are so lame and old. Now the cool kids invest in people. Go figure.

You must check your inbox and click to confirm your subscription.(Check your spam folder if you don't see it soon.)

Get Cranky in Your Inbox! The