United Airlines on Friday quietly rolled out self-service bag-tagging at Chicago O’Hare airport.
In the tradition of pumping your own gas and bagging your own groceries, Chicago-based United will offer self-tagging with an eye toward speeding the process of dropping off a checked bag at the airport ticket counter.
It’s part of the airline’s effort to give back to customers choice, control and time in airports, said Ken Bostock, United managing director of airport strategy.
It also frees up ticket agents to attend to customers who need special attention, he said. In that way, it should speed things for those who use self-tagging and even those who don’t, he said.
“All around, it should be a better use of everybody’s time,” Bostock said.
The move is another step toward automation for major U.S. airlines, many of which already offer self-tagging. American Airlines, for example, has offered it at O’Hare since March 2013.
In the United ticket lobby at O’Hare, 24 kiosks are equipped not only to check in passengers and issue boarding passes but also to dispense self-adhesive luggage destination tags for bags customers want to check.
Checking a bag costs $25 one-way for most customers, and there is no cost — or discount — for using self-tagging. Customers who check in at home or on a mobile device can use airport kiosks for bag-tagging.
Customers affix the tags to their bags, as per instructions on the screen and on the back of the tags. They then drop off the bags with an agent in a line adjacent to the kiosks but separate from the traditional check-in line. The agent will then weigh the bag and verify passenger identification before customers head to catch their flights.
Bostock said self-tagging allows United “to reduce our lines and the wait time for customers.”
The two-step self-tagging process can lead to 15 to 30 percent increase in the number of customers that can be processed at the ticket counter, Bostock said.
The process has worked for American Airlines at O’Hare. Some 10,000 American customers a week are using self-tagging, leading to an average time savings of 55 percent, said American spokeswoman Leslie Scott.
“Our customers have told us they appreciate the flexibility that the self-tagging kiosks offer,” she said.
Here are questions and answers about the optional new bag-tagging process at United.
Won’t this just create a bottleneck at the drop-off line?
“It shouldn’t,” Bostock said. United has tested the procedure, and the bag drop-off is usually fast, under 20 seconds per person, he said. To alleviate congestion, United can open an additional drop-off line, he said.
Isn’t this really a way to reduce service for customers who are paying $50 roundtrip to check a bag?
The purpose is to save time and give customers more control, Bostock said.
“You can always go through the traditional check-in if you prefer,” he said. “Not everybody wants to go down the self-service channels. We have a lot of customers who enjoy the high-touch experience, and we’re planning to provide that.”
Is this about reducing jobs at the ticket counter?
“That’s not our strategy. It’s more around becoming efficient,” Bostock said.
However, a spokesman for the union that represents some United workers isn’t so sure.
“Anytime you automate, it is about reducing headcount,” said Carlson, spokesman for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents ticket agents and other United employees who interact with customers. “We think people do the work better than machines.”
But he said many O’Hare employees wouldn’t be affected because the union anticipated job cuts from automation and built in protections to the union contract, such as insourcing jobs that were formerly done by a third party.
Is self-tagging a security risk?
“It’s not a security risk at all,” Bostock said. The procedure is approved by the Transportation Security Administration, passenger IDs are verified and checked bags still go through airport security screening.
Can customers print bag tags at home?
Not yet. “That is coming,” Bostock said.
Eventually, customers will be able to print the tags on normal full-sized printer paper and fold them in a way that they fit into a plastic sleeve that would be attached to the bag, he said.
Does United offer self-tagging at other airports?
O’Hare is the eighth airport in which United has implemented self-tagging. After testing at a Houston airport, the airline decided to roll out self-tagging first in other airports that were already undergoing renovation, such as those combining ticketing lobbies following its merger with Continental Airlines, Bostock said. “We’re now rolling it out in our hubs, and this was the right timing for Chicago,” he said.
What other automation is coming?
In addition to already-available remote check-in and boarding passes on mobile devices, some airlines, including United, are testing self-boarding — allowing customers to bypass gate agents to board aircraft through a turnstile. Self-boarding is not yet available for United passengers at O’Hare, but United’s testing of the procedure in Boston is “going quite well,” Bostock said.
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