AAHustle & Flow [Fast Company] takes a look at Alaska Airlines’ effort to design a better way to get customers through airport check-in.

The airline studied theme parks, hospitals, and retailers to see how they handled similar situations. Then, the team built mock-ups in a warehouse using cardboard boxes for podiums, kiosks, and belts in order to find ways to increase efficiency.

The resulting makeover at the Seattle airport is likely to save almost $8 million a year (and means they won’t have to spend $500 million building a new terminal).

Ed White, Alaska’s VP of corporate real estate, assembled a team of employees from across the company to design a better system. It visited theme parks, hospitals, and retailers to see what it could learn. It found less confusion and shorter waits at places where employees were available to direct customers. “Disneyland is great at this,” says Jeff Anderson, a member of White’s skunk works. “They have their people in all the right places.”

The team began brainstorming lobby ideas. At a Seattle warehouse, it built mock-ups, using cardboard boxes for podiums, kiosks, and belts. It tested a curved design, one resembling a fishbone, and one with counters placed at 90-degree angles to each other. It built a small prototype in Anchorage to test systems with real passengers and Alaska employees. The resulting minor changes, such as moving the button that sends a bag down the conveyor belt, “increased agents’ efficiency and prevented them from straining themselves,” says Gordon Edberg, a principal at ECH Architecture who helped implement the adjustments.

The Seattle design begins with a deep lobby where 50 kiosks are pushed to the front and concentrated in banks. “You need to cluster kiosks in the ‘decision zones’ where passengers decide what to do within 15 seconds,” says airline technology expert Kevin Peterson. Alaska placed “lobby coordinators” out front, à la Disneyland, to help educate travelers. The 56 bag-drop stations are further back and arranged so that passengers can see security.

The results? During my two hours of observation in Seattle, an Alaska agent processed 46 passengers, while her counterpart at United managed just 22. United’s agents lose precious time hauling bags and walking the length of the ticket counter to reach customers. Alaska agents stand at a station with belts on each side, assisting one passenger while a second traveler places luggage on the free belt. With just a slight turn, the agent can assist the next customer. “We considered having three belts,” White says. “But then the agent has to take a step. That’s wasted time.”

The new design will create significant cost savings. Seventy-three percent of Alaska’s Anchorage passengers now check in using kiosks or the Web, compared with just 50% across the airline industry.

A lot of airlines accept the status quo model (i.e. long lines/waits) as an inevitability. Good on Alaska Airlines for daring to rethink the whole process and coming up with a solution that actually works.

[Tx PM]

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