Always innovating: Alaska testing electronic bag tags

Travel can be a hassle.

Nobody knows that better than the members of CX Labs, Alaska Airlines’ customer research and development team, who spend their days at the airport looking for travelers’ pain points and brainstorming ways to soothe them.

Since the department’s creation in 2013, the team has tested all kinds of new products and processes – some successful, some less so. In 2014, the team piloted the use of biometric check-in in Alaska’s Board Room airport lounges. In 2015, they expanded biometrics to a test of fingerprint boarding passes and IDs. Now, they’re taking checked luggage to the next level by testing electronic bag tags.

“Alaska has a long history of being willing to go out on a limb and test new technology – we were the first U.S. airline to sell tickets via the Internet, the first U.S. airline to offer Web check-in and the first airline in the world to use GPS to land airplanes. This culture of innovation is in our DNA,” says Sunae Park, Alaska’s managing director of airport services.

“We may try something new that never makes it to the customer, and that’s OK. The point is that we’re always thinking about what comes next.”

That next big thing might just be electronic bag tags – 2-by-3-inch reusable plastic tags with e ink screens (similar to an e-reader like a Kindle or Nook), powered by a low-energy, wireless Bluetooth technology. The tags are affixed to a suitcase like any other bag tag, using durable nylon cording, and are updated via the Alaska Airlines mobile app during the check-in process. They never need to be recharged during their two-year lifespan.

Download the app: iPhone | Android | Windows Phone

The tags were designed by engineers at Vanguard ID Systems of West Chester, Pennsylvania, who spent 10 years developing the product and worked closely with International Air Transport Association (IATA) members throughout the process.

Rick Nagy, Alaska’s product development manager for EBT and chair of the IATA baggage working group, says Vanguard ID has done a good job of following industry standards, making it easy for Alaska to integrate electronic bag tag check-in into its smartphone application.

“We’re really excited about the possibility of electronic bag tags. If we like what we see during the test, this could be a very cool new tool for our tech-savvy, do-it-yourself customers,” says Loesje Degroen, customer R&D manager and project lead.

The test kicked off in summer 2015 with 60 Alaska employees, who spent several months using electronic bag tags to check luggage as they traveled around Alaska’s route network. A select group of customers have been testing the tags on domestic flights since October 2015.

One such customer is Renee Hasler, an MVP Gold 75K on Alaska who flies multiple times every week.

“Overall, I love it. It’s quick and easy,” says Hasler. “If you’re a frequent traveler who wants more control and convenience in the travel process, using really efficient technology, you should definitely give it a try.”

This summer, 500 more of Alaska’s frequent fliers will have the opportunity to test the tags in an expanded customer trial.

If electronic bag tags make it to the mainstream, customers can expect the following day-of-travel timeline:

  1. Check in for your flight via the Alaska Airlines mobile app.
  2. When prompted, select the number of bags to be checked and complete check-in.
  3. Turn on the electronic bag tag to prepare it for syncing. The bag tag will automatically update.
  4. At the airport, find a customer service agent who will check your ID, scan the bag tag and send you on your way.

While electronic bag tags are still in testing mode, Alaska currently offers several time-saving options for checked luggage. Customers can tag their own bags by requesting a reusable bag tag holder online, or pick up a holder up at their departing airport, check in at and print luggage tags at home. At the airport, customers simply need to show ID at an Alaska baggage drop area.

What would you like to see Alaska’s research and development team test next?