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Tag, you're it: Airlines expand self-tagged baggage programs

If you’re like most people, your pre-travel to-do list includes booking your own flights, checking yourself in and printing or downloading your own boarding pass.

These days, you can add baggage handling to that list. From Orlando, Fla., to Vancouver, B.C., tagging your own checked bags represents the next big thing in self-service air travel. Consider:

  • On Friday, WestJet introduced self-tagging for U.S.-bound passengers in Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal, the first time the service has been made available for trans-border travel.
  • Two weeks ago, American Airlines expanded its self-tagging program to Orlando after testing the program in Austin, Texas. Similar services are expected to be offered at Reagan National and Chicago O’Hare airports in the coming months.
  • Having launched a self-tagging program in Seattle in May, Alaska Airlines has recently expanded the service to San Diego and San Antonio and expects to roll it out to Anchorage, Minneapolis and Portland, Ore., next month.

“It speeds up the whole check-in and bag-drop process,” said Perry Flint, spokesman for the International Air Transport Association (IATA), an industry trade group that’s spearheading efforts to expand self-service options across the industry. “You’re in control of the process and it goes very quickly.”

The systems vary by carrier but essentially passengers input their travel information into an airport kiosk, receive and affix their tags and take their luggage to a bag drop where airline employees check photo IDs and scan the luggage into the system. In some cases, the kiosks feature scales that allow passengers to weigh their luggage and pay any required fees.

“There’s a first-time learning curve,” said Alaska Airlines spokesperson Bobbie Egan, “but we’ve seen passengers adapt pretty quickly.” Once they do, she says, the bag-drop area typically provides a faster experience than traditional ticket counters do.

While speed and convenience are the main selling points of such programs, the airlines also maintain that self-service allows passengers to take more control of their travel experience.

“People check in from home; they get their boarding passes at kiosks or electronically,” said WestJet spokesman Robert Palmer. “By the time they get to the airport, they’re most of the way there. This is the natural progression of that idea.”

It’s also, however, another manifestation of the same trend that has people pumping their own gas and scanning their own groceries, which some view as a convenience and others see as a cost-cutting measure that translates into fewer employees and less personal service.

As Henry Harteveldt, co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group, recently told CNBC, “Airlines can avoid hiring and training additional employees in the near term. In the long term, it may lead to the redeployment of staff or reduction in airport employee head count."

That may be so but it’s a non-issue in terms of the guest experience, says Palmer. “We haven’t cut airport staff; we’ve decided to redeploy people out from behind our counters so they can go to our guests and interact more meaningfully with them. We may not need as many people going forward but we’ll deal with that on an attrition basis.”

In the meantime, it’s safe to assume that self-service options are only going to expand, in large part because travelers have clearly embraced the concept. In fact, according to IATA’s latest Global Passenger Survey, 52 percent of travelers said they would like the ability to print out their baggage tags at home.

Presumably, loading those bags onto the plane will remain an airline-provided service.

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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.