Hustle & 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.
Related: Little tweaks, huge impact
kevinon 17 Jun 08
It’s Alaska Airlines, not Alaskan.
Benjyon 17 Jun 08
Meanwhile, United and American simply start nickel-and-diming their customers with things like adding fees for checked bags…
Maybe if the legacy carriers tried to actually improve their operations rather then squeeze every last penny out of their customers they’d do better.
I know, personally, I’ve become much less likely to do any discretionary travel because of all the hassles, fees, etc. make it so damn unpleasant. Airlines like Alaska, Southwest and JetBlue show that it’s possible to run a better airline—if only they went more places!
Marcon 17 Jun 08
Sort of… it is faster to process, and almost fun…
... but when there’s a problem – like your flight is overbooked – they just take your bags anyway and then send you to the customer service line which is the regular diabolical queue.
Stephane Grenieron 17 Jun 08
Imagine that saving over the long term.
But more importantly, that additional revenue can help you leap frog over your competitors. In this case, it’s a small percentage of total revenues, but doing this over and over on all aspects of your operations can quickly get you way ahead of your competition.
This happens in computer programming a lot too, also known as technical or developer debt. If you’re interested I wrote about it in detail at: http://www.followsteph.com/2007/09/30/developer-debt/
Who knew there was truth to “Work smarter, not harder”.
Ray Mon 17 Jun 08
Visiting Australia earlier this year their domestic check in processes are very simular to this and allows check in up to 20mins before a flight and no earlier than an hour before. Everything ran so smoothly at each domestic terminal with people at key points to direct you to check in etc. Returning to the UK it was goodbye organisation and smooth check ins and hello delays and endless queues. Be interesting to see how you guys do it in the US but what you describe sounds a lot like the Virgin Blue/Qantas experience I got in Australia.
Phil McThomason 17 Jun 08
I’m glad that’s not an AP story you’re quoting there!
David McCreathon 17 Jun 08
They’ve been using that set up in the Anchorage airport for several months now. I fly a lot between Anchorage and San Francisco, and while I don’t always check a bag, the difference between the process at the two airports is remarkable. Even when Anchorage is at the height of tourist season and people are checking several large bags, things are pretty smooth.
Mike Amundsenon 17 Jun 08
FWIW, anyone who has flown SAS or other European carriers will recognize this layout. It’s nice that the folks @ Alaska Air got a chance to spend time at Disneyland, but all they really needed to do was take a look at their counterparts on the other side of the ‘big pond.’
Johnon 17 Jun 08
@ Kevin: Nice catch, especially after the post from the guys yesterday complaining about “37 Signals” versus “37Signals”
carlivaron 17 Jun 08
@John – I didn’t know anyone at 37signals was applying for a job at Alaska Airlines.
just wonderingon 17 Jun 08
user research. mockups. prototypes at warehouses. task analysis. doesn’t sound very ‘getting real’ to me.
Michael Longon 17 Jun 08
Cool. Nice to see someone redesigning workflows and improving efficiency instead of just cutting back and adding fees.
Other airlines could do this as well, but many have already sabotaged themselves by charging for checked baggage… which simply means that planes will be delayed longer at the gate as EVERYONE tries to get on and off with their carry-on luggage.
Blake Lingadon 17 Jun 08
This story is lean management at its finest. Here are two gems from my two favorite lean blogs:
sloanon 18 Jun 08
This is the exact kind of work that the feds should do for security lines as well. It has been years and years since higher security standards have been put in place and the system for going through security has only become worse. It drives me crazy how inefficient the process is.
Tom Gon 19 Jun 08
It would be interesting to compare the times to other airlines besides United. I suspect there are many reasons United may be slower beside the layout.
Great post! All organizations can benefit from studying their workflow to improve efficiency, quality and customer satisfaction. Thanks for the remider.
This discussion is closed.