Soaring Service Airlines speed up ways of moving travelers through airports (Fort Worth Star-Telegram; 01/11/99) Recently in Seattle's Sea-Tac International Airport, Alaska Airlines customer service agent Suzanne Pippel, armed with a tiny printer cinched to her belt and a miniature computer in hand, approached travelers eyeing a flight display board and offered to help. She quickly checked banker Randy Dawson in on both segments of his flight to Portland, Ore., and Phoenix and gave him boarding passes from her printer. "This is very convenient," Dawson said. That's the idea behind a range of innovations with which Alaska Airlines is trying to speed air travelers through airports. These days, getting from curbside to gate can take nearly as long as the flight itself. And it's going to get worse, predicts Joe Brancatelli, a publishing consultant and Internet airline critic. That's because few new airports are being built, and the number of U.S. air travelers is expected to reach 924 million a year in 2009, up from 616 million in 1998. Airlines have been part of the problem, with most preferring to use their capital to expand and upgrade their fleets and improve their pricing and reservations systems, rather than streamline airport operations. But a few carriers now recognize that upgrading the terrestrial part of the trip might set them apart. So they're tinkering with technologies that could remove some of the steps from the check-in gauntlet. Whichever succeeds first, "you can bet that all the others will scramble all over each other to match that customer service," says Dick Marchi, senior vice president of technology for the Airports Council International, a trade group. Alaska Airlines, a Seattle-based carrier that serves the West Coast, wants to be the first, says Ed White, vice president of customer service. Alaska was one of the first U.S. airlines to sell tickets on the Internet and to offer electronic ticketing. And in 1996, it was the first U.S. airline to install self-service check-in computer kiosks for its e-ticket fliers. The machines verify the traveler's itinerary, pose security questions, sell upgrades and dole out boarding passes - all in a little more than a minute. Some also produce bar-coded baggage tags. Alaska plans to have 310 kiosks in place at airports this year and is already starting to put them in remote sites such as airport parking garages and hotels. Not content to stop there, Alaska formed an "airport of the future" team of employees and sent them out to elicit ideas from unlikely sources, including hospital emergency rooms, designers of Nintendo games and former Walt Disney Co. theme park planners. Some of the ideas - such as issuing the hand-held computers to roving check- in agents - have already borne fruit. Others are still being tested. In October, Alaska wired one of its check-in kiosks at Boise Air Terminal in Idaho with antennas that "sense" the proximity of a "smart" key fob carried by a frequent flier. The key fob is encoded with the owner's name and frequent-flier number. As the traveler approaches, the machine greets him by name and calls up his reservation, shaving about 30 seconds from the interaction. But the goal is to marry the "proximity technology" with a photo database and eliminate an entire line. In the next phase of the test, which began in December in Boise, the airline is storing images of the driver's licenses of the key fob owners in its reservations computer - with their permission. As the traveler heads to the gate, the key fob triggers antennas on the gate agent's computer, which downloads the image of the license and saves the agent from having to physically check the ID. Instead, the agent can do a visual comparison of the face and photo as the flier boards the plane. Alaska says it is still sorting through privacy issues and concerns about what would happen if the key fob was stolen.