Austin-Bergstrom Int'l Teams with American Airlines & TSA in Self-Tag Pilot

Ronnie Garrett
Published in: 


Project: Baggage Self-Tagging Pilot

Location: Austin-Bergstrom Int'l Airport

Project Partners: American Airlines; TSA

Kiosk Manufacturer: NCR Kinetics

Number of Kiosks: 9

Future Expansion: Additional airlines and airports are expected to join the pilot this fall.

When news of possible self-tagging for baggage first broke, some commentators poked fun at the idea. "What's next?" quipped one broadcaster. "Are passengers going to be expected to fuel the aircraft?"

American Airlines received plenty of similar feedback when it added a self-service bag-tagging option at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS) in Texas, acknowledges Jonathon Bear, manager of airport services for American. But once passengers realized how much time it could save them, the idea was no longer a punch line, adds Bear.

Self-service options appeal to many time-crunched travelers. A 2010 survey by SITA found solid demand for self-service in every step of the passenger journey, including self-tagging for luggage. In fact, fully 66% of the 2,490 fliers surveyed indicated they would use kiosks to print their own bag tags.

According to SITA, demand is clearly building for non-traditional means of self-service as passengers become increasingly comfortable with online, kiosk and mobile phone check-in.

Keep It Moving

In March, AUS became the first airport in the United States to enable customers to print their own tags for checked luggage. But the airport had been mulling the idea long before, notes Justin Taubman, program manager of passenger innovation for TSA.

The program took shape as the Fast Travel program of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) worked to create standardized barcoded boarding passes for passengers to print or download to their mobile phones. Through this process, self-tagging emerged as another viable self-service initiative worth exploring, Taubman explains.

"Self-tagging was being tested in several other countries and was brought to the attention of U.S. carriers and international carriers that fly to the United States," he says, noting that carriers were finding both customer service and staffing benefits in the method.

The program is intended to reduce the transaction time between agents and passengers. When an agent tags bags, the process can take up to two minutes. In addition, an agent can only help one passenger at a time. Allowing passengers to tag their own bags enables multiple passengers to tag bags at the same time, saving precious time at the ticket counter. Because the process was still being tested at press time, American Airlines and TSA could not quantify just how much time it saves.

The efficiency of the process helps prevent backups at the ticket counter, notes AUS spokesman Jim Halbrook. "To keep lines moving is a good thing at any time, but when you're at peak times and lines are coming out of ticket counter queues and spilling into the main lobby, you want people moving through the line as fast as possible. Self-tagging helps that happen," Halbrook explains.

Refining the Process

Despite all the potential gains associated with self-tagging, officials had a few wrinkles to iron out before the pilot could begin. When the TSA Office of Transportation Security Network Management (TSNM) met with IATA to establish self-tagging security details, they found they needed to amend the Aircraft Operator Standard Security Program (AOSSP), which required airline agents to check passengers' identification as they tagged their bags.

TSNM officials also sought to ensure bag tags would remain inactive until activated by airport personnel. "If the bag got onto the belt and into the belly of the airport, the system needed to be able to say, 'I don't know what this bag is' and kick it out for inspection," says Taubman. Officials consequently set requirements for this process before the pilot began.

For the project's first phase, the TSA sought small airports that were not airline hubs to facilitate the testing of self-tagging under controlled conditions, explains Taubman. "American Airlines was the only airline ready to go in an airport that we felt comfortable with," he says.

The AUS ticket lobby for American Airlines, adds Halbrook, also provided an open layout and efficient passenger flow that easily accommodated additional kiosks and printers.

Local travelers also played a role in the selection of AUS. "Austin is a tech-savvy community that is ready for something new and innovative," says AUS executive director Jim Smith. The airport is also close to American's Dallas-Fort Worth hub and maintains strong relationships with airline officials - conditions that have prompted the carrier to pilot other projects successfully at AUS, relates Bear.

"We're really pleased to be the first airport in the nation to be able to offer this to our customers and to work with American and the TSA to make it happen," says Halbrook.

How it Works

The process begins at the airline's self-service machines, where customers check in, indicate their number of bags, and make payments for additional bags, if necessary. In addition to printing customers' tickets, the kiosks also print tags for passengers to attach to their luggage.

The kiosk's bag-tag printers produce just one bag tag at a time. If multiple tags are needed, the first tag prints and is held in the printer until the passenger removes it. The second tag prints only when the first tag has been removed. "That prevents tags from falling on the floor or getting caught on something," Bear explains.

LCD screens on the kiosks play a video loop demonstrating how to remove the backing from tags and attach them to baggage. Instructions are also printed on the tags themselves.

Once tags are securely affixed, passengers take their luggage to a weigh station. If the bags are overweight, they can use a credit card to pay the additional fee or opt to repack. Passengers then move to the ticket counter, where an agent checks identification, takes baggage and scans boarding passes. "A screen faces the passenger and the agent, so both of them can check to make sure all information is correct," says Bear. "If any corrections are needed, they are made at that time."

At this point, agents activate the bag tags. Until a ticket agent scans a tag's barcode and activates it within the Brock Solutions' software system, the bag tag is simply a piece of paper with letters and numbers on it, explains Bear. "This way, if passengers were to print a bag tag and walk off with it, we have systems in place to identify that and act accordingly relative to security," he explains.

Bags with active tags are sent down a conveyor belt that moves them toward the sorting system. Right before the bags enter the system, another agent scans the tags to ensure they are active. A large LCD monitor over the bag well glows with a green suitcase for activated bags or a red suitcase for inactive bags. "If it glows red, the agents take it off the conveyor and additional investigation is done to find out why the bag is on the bag belt," Bear says.

Agents screen bags within the sorting system "just as they always have," he explains. "If suspect items are found inside, the situation is handled by the TSA or by us, just as it would have been in the past. The internal screening process hasn't changed."

The Sky's the Limit

So far, results from the pilot have been tremendous, reports Bear. "We have seen a substantial improvement in the overall passenger processing time at ticket counters," he says, declining to be any more specific.

"This program is about putting the passenger in control," Bear continues.

Naturally, the airline and airport will analyze the choices passengers make. "We are excited to garner customer feedback on this self-tag trial because we know it is one of the areas in the travel process that our customers have been asking us to streamline," says Craig Richey, American Airlines' general manager at AUS.

Other carriers and airport authorities are also interested in the results. Bear reports that requests are pouring in for program overviews and tours of American's self-tag system.

That being said, American and TSA continue to evaluate and tweak the process, he specifies. "Our early results are positive, but we'll be making further changes and evaluating different processes to determine the best process flow and mix of self-service kiosks versus agent tags," he qualifies.

After such evaluation, the pilot will expand to include more airports and carriers - most likely in the third quarter of 2011. "There's a phrase around here that 'If you've seen one airport, you've seen one airport,' " says Taubman. "The idea is to test this at airports of many sizes and layouts to develop best practices. It's not a cookie cutter process; we will need to account for all different types of airports."

By early 2012, TSA and participating carriers and airports will analyze the data to develop self-tagging standards. "Any airline wishing to apply this solution to an airport will need to check with TSA to make sure they are meeting these requirements," Taubman says. "As long as they comply, they'll be able to join the group."

Looking ahead, Bear notes there's already an IATA initiative underway to allow passengers to print bag tags at home. "There are too many unanswered questions to do that today," he says.

Although the necessary technology is not yet available for self-printing, he definitely considers it a possibility in the future.


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