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Away on Business: Airport short-cuts

New airport security is here to stay, but there are now special services travelers can utilize to make travel smoother.
/ Source: Reuters

Tight airport security is here to stay, but technology and new services are providing shortcuts that may make the trip through the terminal quicker and less painful. Now that the government has started requiring passengers to have a boarding pass before they get in line to go through screening points to the gate — a provision that will eventually cover all airports — having that piece of paper in hand has become crucial.

But there's no need to wait in a long baggage check-in line for a boarding pass.

American Airlines, Northwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air offer Internet check-in around the clock through Web sites that allow a passenger to print out the boarding pass at home, in the office or at any other place where there is a printer available.

United Airlines says it plans to introduce the print-out capability later this year.

American says its customers can print out two copies of a pass — one for the gate agent and one for records or expense account submission — beginning 12 hours before a flight and up to one hour before departure.

The next best place to secure a boarding pass may be at curbside, at least for those checking baggage. Some carriers can issue a boarding pass at that point allowing the passenger to head for the security line hands free.

Then there are the self-service check-in kiosks that have sprouted like mushrooms in many of the busiest airports. On a recent busy Sunday afternoon at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, for instance, Delta Airlines passengers with electronic tickets were able to walk right up to one of a cluster of kiosks, print out their boarding pass and hand luggage over at a separate special counter in exchange for a baggage claim ticket, avoiding a long line of passengers waiting to buy or change tickets.

Northwest says it now has 632 self-service terminals —more than any other carrier — in airport lobbies, pedestrian walkways and parking areas at 143 locations in the United States and Canada. It is possible to check bags inside the parking garage at some locations, and get a boarding pass. Northwest’s system also allows the traveler to get a return trip boarding pass, provided the flight is within 30 hours.

Northwest estimates that 39 percent of its customers now use some sort of automated check-in.


Alaska has opened at the Anchorage airport what the carrier calls a “port of the future” that has essentially eliminated the ticket counter. Passengers get a boarding pass at an electronic self-service terminal, hand it to an agent who scans it and places a claim check on the luggage, and the passenger then places the bag on a conveyor belt that takes it back to security.

Each baggage drop has two conveyor belts, one on either side of the podium, and the agent can process two lines at once. Alaska spokesman Jack Walsh says four of the check-on points at Anchorage recently processed 100 passengers from a tour bus in 17 minutes, and that Web check-ins now account for nearly 9 percent of all that carrier’s passengers.

Beyond the boarding pass, up-do-date information on gate changes and other disruptions may be an equally valuable commodity at, or on the way to, the airport.

Several carriers offer services that alert subscribing passengers by pager or other electronic device to gate information and other real-time data.

Orbitz, the on-line agency organized by American, Continental, Delta, Northwest and United, offers a “Customer Care” service.

Scott Ackerman, who directs that program, says information ranging from work stoppages and strikes at foreign destinations to flight delays and the fastest way to get a boarding pass is routinely directed to customers who can receive the information on cell phones, pagers or any other portable communications devices.

The system can also provide duplicate messages for family members or business colleagues, informing them at the same time as the traveler of delays or other schedule problems.

“I think there are some people who have stopped traveling because they’re not prepared, and waste a whole day at the airport. If business travelers can be better informed they may go back to more face-to-face (travel-driven) business.”


Airport hassles have also drawn attention to services that handle baggage — picking it up at home, office or drop-off points and delivering it directly to a hotel room or other destination, allowing the traveler not only to travel light to the airport but to bypass the baggage claim at the other end.

There are a number of such services available, and they are not cheap. But for groups traveling together to a meeting or convention with trade show material or other equipment, the price could be worth it.

Cecilia Vesnesky, a logistics director at Universal Express Inc. which operates Luggage Express and VirtualBellhop, says her company has been trying to make more widely available what was traditionally seen as a premium service for top executives.

Using the service to handle two pieces of luggage from Chicago to New York might cost from $115 to $120, she said, with prices depending on how quickly the customer wants the baggage sent.

“It’s a very liberating service,” she said, and one that could help some companies entice employees who may have been reluctant to fly since 9-11 to start traveling again.