Image: Lee Loveland
Ted S. Warren  /  AP
Lee Loveland of Seattle, a frequent flier who has flown more than a million miles on Alaska Airlines, takes a sledgehammer to a section of an old Alaska Airlines ticket counter earlier this month at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport as part of a ceremony to unveil the first phase of Alaska's "Airport of the Future" check-in facility.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/30/2007 9:49:53 AM ET 2007-10-30T13:49:53

Talk about striking a blow for better customer service. Two weeks ago, Lee Loveland, a Seattle-based architect and frequent flier, took a sledgehammer to an Alaska Airlines check-in counter at Sea-Tac.

The surrounding crowd cheered.

No, it wasn’t an act of air rage, but rather, a promotion choreographed by the airline. Having recently joined Alaska’s million-mile club, Loveland was invited to participate in the ceremonial destruction of a section of old ticket counter and the inauguration of its successor. A few good whacks and the old counter lay in pieces, a fitting end to a check-in system we’ve all come to know and hate.

The new system, which uses self-service kiosks and manned baggage drops, is one of several industry efforts designed to improve the process of checking in and boarding. Thanks to innovations from Air Canada, Southwest and others, at least one part of the flying experience could become a lot less unpleasant.

The Alaska experience
Like many airports, Sea-Tac features a long, shallow check-in area with ticket counters stretched along a barrier-like back wall. The inevitable result: lines of passengers snaking back and forth and blocking the flow of others trying to get by.

Alaska’s new system, which debuted in Anchorage in 2004, forgoes the counter for a cluster of free-standing podiums flanked by customer-accessible baggage belts. Passengers with boarding passes — printed at home or at kiosks located throughout the airport — can step up to any one of them, put their bags on the belt and have an agent print and affix their baggage tags. Security is just a few steps away.

The concept is akin to the difference between a self-service restaurant with a buffet line and one with individual islands and service stations. Instead of waiting while everyone in front of you loads their plates with a little of this, a little of that, you can head directly for the station that has what you want. At the airport, that’s the “line” with nobody in it.

In Anchorage, the system provided “instantaneous results,” says Steve Jarvis, Alaska’s vice president of sales, marketing and customer experience. “Average customer wait times were cut in half.”

In Seattle, the new system will be unveiled in thirds, with the second and third sections slated to open by the middle of next year. (In the interim, passengers will be able to use either the old or the new system.) And while there probably won’t be any more ceremonial sledgehammering, there may be a bit more sanity in the terminal.

Bye-bye paper boarding passes
Earlier this month, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced a global standard for digital boarding passes that can be displayed on a cell phone or PDA. It won’t happen any time soon in the U.S. (see below), but two Canadian airlines — Air Canada and WestJet — are already using it for domestic and (non-U.S.) international travel.

Under the Air Canada system, passengers can receive their boarding passes via a text message and link to a URL with a two-dimensional barcode. The former gets them through security; the latter can be held up to a scanner at the gate. With WestJet, passengers receive an e-mail with a digital image of a boarding pass that can be shown at security and the gate.

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“Business travelers absolutely love it,” says WestJet spokeswoman Gillian Bentley. “They can check in on their laptop at their hotel, pick up their e-mail on their BlackBerry or mobile device and just show up at the airport. And we all save by not printing out boarding passes.”

In the U.S., several airlines have expressed interest in the concept, but implementation will have to wait until TSA resolves its concerns over the security of digital boarding passes. If and when that happens, you’ll be able to flash your phone, show your ID and go right to your gate. Just don’t let anyone stamp your screen.

All aboard, but not all at once
Finally, consider Southwest, which recently added a reserved-spot twist to its longstanding open-seating boarding system. It’s not a reserved seat, mind you, but rather, a reserved spot in the boarding process, which means you no longer have to camp out by the gate in the hopes of snagging a decent seat.

Under the new system, boarding passes still feature a letter (A, B or C), but also a number (1–60). The former denotes your boarding group; the latter, your position within it. And while you still board by group letter, you’re now free to relax or roam the concourse until your number/letter comes up. The airline expects to implement the program system-wide in early November.

Truth be told, the new system is more evolutionary than revolutionary — as are those from Alaska and the others — but it does portend a potentially more pleasant experience in the terminal. Given the state of air travel these days, every little bit helps.

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