Alaska Airlines Installs Self-Service Bag Tag Stations

Alaska Airlines Installs Self-Service Bag Tag Stations
Kristen Rindfleisch
Published in: 

Airports with significant service from Alaska Airlines are now dotted with new self-serve machines for passengers. The Seattle-based carrier recently removed ticketing kiosks and replaced them with stations solely dedicated to printing tags for checked baggage. The initiative affected 79 airports throughout the U.S, including the airline’s five hubs.

The move to self-service bag tag stations was made to provide a simpler, faster check-in experience for travelers while reducing paper use/waste and shifting toward a more paperless system. On average, passengers previously spent three to four minutes at Alaska Airlines ticketing kiosks. Now, most generate their boarding passes on cellphones or at home and spend just 45 seconds per transaction at the new bag tag stations.

The widespread equipment trade-out was developed to replace aging ticketing kiosks while also supporting the airline’s Transformation Initiative, which aims to reinvent lobbies and get customers through the lobby and to security in five minutes or less. “In order to do that, we needed to replace our existing kiosks with new, innovative products that could help deliver on that goal,” says Alaska Airlines Project Manager Josiah Reimers. “It really has created the environment that we are looking for in our lobbies, which is ease. We want the travel experience as easy as possible.”


Project: Self-Service Bag Tag Stations

Sponsor: Alaska Airlines

Location: 79 U.S. airports

Cost: Component of carrier’s $2.5 billion airport improvement program

Deployment Schedule: 1st quarter 2023–1st quarter 2024

Key Components: Fabricated millwork kiosks on stainless-steel bases, with iPads, boarding pass scanners & bag tag printers; updated self-service software

Kiosk Footprint: 21½ ” x 16 ½ ”

Program Management: J.A. Watts Inc.

Deployment: Reliant Corp.

Millwork Design & Fabrication: Architectural
Casework Inc.

Tag Printers: Zebra

iPad Holders & Boarding Pass Scanning Software Development Kit: Aila

Key Benefits: Faster check-in for travelers; less paper waste;
ADA-compliant machines

The recently completed bag tag station program is part of a larger $2.5 billion investment Alaska Airlines is making in the airports it serves. For this initiative, the airline partnered with J.A. Watts Inc. for program management, Reliant Corp. for deployment and Architectural Casework Inc. as the millwork designer and fabricator.

Development and Testing

Beginning in 2020, Alaska Airlines’ internal product development team began designing and building the back-end product for new bag tag stations. The team launched small pilot initiatives to test early versions, which helped guide development. One of the first test airports was Palm Springs International (PSP) in California, because it offered a variety of travelers, a mix of age groups and heavy throughput during Spring Break.

The airline also tested early versions of the system at Indianapolis International Airport (IND), because its catchment area has relatively fewer smartphone users. The new kiosks require travelers to initiate the bag tag transaction by scanning their digital boarding pass, so the small subset of travelers without smartphones must check in online and print their boarding passes before coming to the airport or rely on ticket counter agents for a printed boarding pass.

In early 2023, Alaska Airlines began a formal pilot program at Palm Springs International Airport and San José Mineta International Airport to put a bag tag station prototype through its paces and make final adjustments. In April 2023, the airline officially launched the new equipment at Portland International Airport (PDX), the first of its six hubs. “It was a dream launch, really went very well,” Reimers recalls. “All the work that we had done to prepare for that moment really paid off.” The team then followed up with a full-scale rollout in June 2023 and essentially took the remainder of the year to complete implementation throughout the contiguous U.S.

Team Effort

Executing such a massive equipment trade-out required careful planning, phasing and coordination. “This was a beast of a project,” Reimers says, “and there were multiple different swim lanes of complexity involved.” Discussions within Alaska Airlines that identified the need to enlist external experts for certain functions significantly contributed to the project’s success, he adds.

For instance, Architectural Casework Inc. brought years of millwork expertise to the project. After working on the design and helping create prototypes for the bag tag kiosks, the company fabricated approximately 330 total bag tag kiosks in about nine months. As Architectural Casework completed the millwork at its manufacturing facility in Michigan, batches of kiosks were shipped to Reliant in Seattle.

The Reliant team then checked, stored and inventoried the kiosks; pulled and prewired additional equipment (except for iPads and printers); prepared the bag tag stations for shipment or delivery; and collaborated with J.A. Watts Inc. to create installation routes. Bag tag kiosks for airports in Alaska were shipped via Alaska Air Cargo to Anchorage for further distribution. Those bound for the “lower 48,” were loaded for each into a 24-foot truck and delivered to the airports. Reliant was the tactical workhorse, with staff driving across the country in calculated, organized routes for deployments.

At each airport, Reliant removed old self-service ticketing kiosks, delivered the new bag tag stations, installed the remaining tech equipment and tested the iPads and printers to make sure they were working correctly. The company also provided troubleshooting as needed to ensure systems were running smoothly. “We saw excellent, consistent results with Reliant’s deployment,” Reimers reports. “It was a project goal for us to ensure that the deployment across all of the 70-plus stations was done consistently so we could have a reliable product down the field.”

The ticketing kiosks Reliant removed were taken back to its facility in Seattle, where workers gutted, recycled and disposed of them properly.

Deployments were completed successfully and four months ahead of schedule, reports Scott Nguyen, chief executive officer of Reliant Corp. “We worked cohesively as a team to narrow down the scope of work,” he says. The company held weekly meetings to discuss the scope of each station in each wave and to devise a game plan to address potential issues that might arise.

As program manager, J.A. Watts’ responsibilities included scheduling, defining procedures and overseeing deployment. This involved crafting bids, ensuring design accuracy, validating bids and coordinating on-site installations. The company also oversaw nightly installations, trained local staff and troubleshot issues during system implementations.

Throughout the deployment schedule, J.A. Watts faced challenges obtaining existing drawings, which required staff to perform on-site surveys and sketches. Staff collaborated with Alaska Airlines to prioritize kiosk layouts and ensure compliance with the American With Disabilities Act and DOT regulations. After establishing these parameters, the team evaluated layout options based on passenger convenience, constructability and cost-effectiveness. With approval from Alaska Airlines, J.A. Watts assisted with the airport approval process, submitting defined scope of work documents and drawings. Notably, more than 90% of the airports approved the bag tag station projects based solely on these submissions, highlighting the thoroughness and effectiveness of the approach. J.A. Watts performed design work at all of Alaska Airlines’ non-hub airports, which helped save additional time.

Working in Waves

Alaska Airlines structured its deployment initiative in waves, with each team completing installations at up to 10 airports per trip. This strategy demanded precise orchestration of airport approvals, contractor arrangements and project management. “[Alaska Airlines] had a good partner in Reliant for the implementation and installation,” says Ryan Houston, program manager with J.A. Watts. “I think that was really critical to the success of this project.”

Cathie Attebery, director of Airport Development at Alaska Airlines, directed the project team to build flexibility into the deployment schedule. The nature of work in each wave would be similar, but the number of stations, project duration or route could change as each airport bag tag station was completed. The airline also worked with its own policy and procedure team and training team to coordinate with the planned waves. “It was really getting everybody on board with this flexible approach,” Reimers recalls.

That set the groundwork for making adjustments when one wave’s work was completed early, so additional stations could be added to it. “It was a massive collaborative effort, but it really started with Cathie’s idea of not locking us into a rigid schedule,’” he says. This flexible approach allowed Alaska Airlines to maintain some rigor in scheduling but adjust stations earlier or later as needed.

In addition to wave scheduling, the project team benefited greatly from the ready availability of equipment from Architectural Casework Inc. and the willingness of crews from Reliant Corp. to live out of a truck for weeks at a time when deploying the bag tag kiosks. By strategically planning and integrating new airport additions into their existing scheduled waves, J.A. Watts was able to complete closer to 10 airports per wave rather than three or four as originally expected, helping the whole project finish ahead of schedule.

Intentional Design, Minimal Footprint

Alaska Airlines and its project partners went through multiple design iterations to achieve the right blend of efficiency and simplicity. Saving space in airport lobbies and easy on-site assembly were also key requirements.

When the airline deemed an early prototype to be too big, Architectural Casework cut the footprint roughly in half by stacking components and compacting the overall design. A stainless-steel base was added to provide stability for the slimmer-profile unit. 

The company worked directly with Alaska Airlines to meet the carrier’s expectations for functionality and aesthetics. The kiosk had to accommodate a scanner unit and bag tag printer, with routing out on the backside and a flush front. “That was all very time-consuming, but in the end, we were able to make it happen,” says Dan Beamish, general manager of Architectural Casework Inc.

Beyond operational performance, accessibility was also important to Alaska Airlines. The final design exceeds Transportation Department requirements and is completely compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act. The airline worked with an external agency to perform accessibility testing and incorporated feedback from individuals with varying degrees of abilities into the design process. “We were fortunate enough to not only have the right inputs to make decisions around this, but we also have in-house expertise and a passion for it,” Reimers comments. “We’ve innovated in a way that is inclusive for anyone who needs to use the bag tag station.”

Using 3D software and CNC-operated machinery, Architectural Casework created models to test each new design, ensuring that moving parts could function properly and size specifications were met. The company uses this method to achieve uniformity across hundreds of products. “Our tolerances are very consistent from one unit to the next,” Beamish notes.

Post-Change Reaction

Reimers reports that the new bag tag stations have earned overwhelmingly positive feedback on customer surveys. In addition, data collected at airports where kiosks were deployed indicate a 10-point jump in self-service within one week. Travelers are generally more inclined to access their boarding passes from home or via mobile devices, Reimers explains. Across the board, Alaska Airlines saw 22% to 50% increases in self-service within months of deployment. “The data shows that guests were adopting this new product because they were embracing the requirement to get a boarding pass before they came to the airport or use other self-service functions,” he notes.

Airline employees are also inspired by the equipment change. “Our agents have been so impressed with the improvements this device has brought to the lobby, they are now flooding us with ideas of how the [bag tag station] could potentially make things even easier for them.”

Airport Involvement

Tampa International Airport (TPA), one of the many locations that received bag tag stations, is pleased with how the new option is affecting guests. “TPA is always happy to work with our airline partners to improve the passenger journey through our facilities, and the new baggage kiosks at Alaska Airlines are an example of using thoughtful design and technology to make check-in as convenient as possible,” says Joshua Gillin, senior manager of Communications for the airport.

New kiosks were also installed at Milwaukee Mitchell International (MKE). As with other tenant improvement projects, MKE’s Business Development and Properties Team facilitated the application submission, conducted a design review and issued airport construction permits. Prior to installation, the MKE team met with Reliant about project objectives, safety, security and other issues to ensure coordination and minimize disruptions to ongoing airport operations.

J.A. Watts worked closely with MKE personnel throughout the deployment. “The Business Development and Properties Team monitors project progress and facilitates the resolution of issues and answers questions impacting the project or impacting airport operations,” says Matthew Hoffman, director of Business and Commercial Development at MKE.

Difficulties Faced

One of the inherent challenges of the project was transitioning from kiosks that allowed travelers to perform almost any self-service function (checking in, printing boarding passes, changing seat assignments, upgrading their service class, etc.) to one that only prints bag tags and collects payment for checked bags. This meant that Alaska Airlines had to update its mobile app and website platforms enable functions previously handled by the kiosks. “Not only were we developing a product at that same time, but we were also working with other teams to ensure that they were absorbing this functionality,” Reimers recalls. The teams also took the opportunity to determine if there were other improvements to be made at the same time as these updates. “The bag tag station would not have been successful without other teams,” he says.

Inclement weather that affected road conditions during the mass deployment was another challenge. Deliveries in remote areas of Alaska that are only accessible via plane required significant coordination to pack and ship the materials and hardware in advance and then fly crews in to remove the old kiosks and install the new. “It was the way we established a very collaborative culture that allowed us to break through those challenges,” Reimers reflects.

Maintaining a steady supply of kiosks for deployment was the responsibility of Architectural Casework, and the company bulked up its production capabilities to support the downstream logistics of Reliant and ultimately help keep installations on schedule. “The communication back and forth was fantastic,” Beamish reports.

From a program management standpoint, Houston notes that any project spanning across dozens of airports and involves several different teams and resources is bound to be challenging. Often, new equipment had to be started up overnight to minimize the impact on travelers. That meant the airline’s IT team had to be available in case equipment didn’t come online or connect properly. “A lot of resources get spread thin on something like this and specifically IT,” Houston remarks. “IT for any airline has a lot of work to do everywhere, and then you add in a big initiative that requires a lot of time for them.” To alleviate some of that stress Reliant and J.A. Watts provided on-site IT coordination and assistance. “We were knowledgeable enough to help troubleshoot on site and be on the phone to have them walk us through what buttons we need to push,” he recalls.

The hurdles faced by Reliant were mainly limited to faulty equipment or configuration issues. To head off potential equipment problems, crews kept additional parts on hand. “Our teams always carried spare equipment in each wave so we could address the problem immediately,” says Nguyen. “As for configuration or network challenges, we worked with Alaska’s network and field service team to troubleshoot and remedy problems immediately.”

Navigating various airport approval processes also proved challenging, Houston notes. While some responses were speedy, others took months—and one outlier required 10 months. Because kiosk deployment was often a small project compared to other airport developments, J.A. Watts focused on making consistent progress amid competing priorities. To facilitate the process, Houston made it a priority to meet face to face with the airport team. “I feel like once you build trust in that partnership, it makes the conversations a lot easier to work through the various approvals,” he comments.

Passengers spend an average of 45 seconds per transaction at the new kiosks.

A Learning Experience

Given the reduction in time Alaska Airlines passengers are spending at the new bag tag–only kiosks, Beamish suspects other airlines may move toward similar equipment. “I think it’s kind of a game-changer for the industry,” he remarks. “The wonderful feedback I know they’ve gotten from customers kind of makes the overwhelming process worth it.”

Houston notes that the traveling Reliant teams provided consistency and quality for the countrywide deployment, even with the use of local electricians at each airport. “We wanted to make sure that Alaska Airlines was getting the same product across the board,” he says.

Houston also highlights the critical importance of communication, especially since COVID-19, and emphasizes the value of face-to-face interactions to build trust and alignment among project stakeholders. Pre-installation meetings were used to keep everyone on the same page and evolved from brief calls to more extensive discussions to mitigate risks and unforeseen on-site issues. “It makes it a lot easier if you take the time to meet with folks in person, walk them through the project, [explain] what our initiatives are,” Houston reflects. “That way, as you start working through the project, that trust is established. You’re able to have honest conversations to make sure that everyone’s in alignment before we get [the kiosks] installed.”

Houston also emphasizes the crucial role of careful, early planning. “This type of program [for a large airline with so many locations] is not as easy as it sounds.” He found that it was important to clearly define deployment priorities and timelines, while also being flexible to handle unexpected problems like contract issues or weather delays. Having a variety of contractor partnerships can encourage competition while improving quality and efficiency, he adds. 

For Alaska Airlines, success of the bag tag station deployment boils down to collaboration and assembling the right team. “You build the right team of people who can get it done, and then at that point, you can accomplish almost anything that you need to do,” Reimers remarks. “Focus on building your team and ensuring that you’re fostering as much collaboration as possible.”


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