How United Airlines Just Made It a Lot Easier to Check Your Bags

United Airlines (NYSE: UAL  ) passengers departing from Chicago's O'Hare airport can add another DIY task to their pre-flight checklist: tagging their own checked luggage. The Chicago Tribune reported this week that United did a soft launch of the self-check program at its main hub. The company hopes it will cut ticket counter lines and free up agents to deal with up to 30% more customers who need to talk to a person.

To take advantage of the new program, United passengers at O'Hare who have already checked in on their mobile devices can print bag tag stickers at the carrier's check-in kiosks, drop their tagged luggage at a separate bag drop counter, and move on.

While the Tribune noted that self-checking doesn't reduce passengers' checked bag fees, it's hard to see the downside to staying out of the ticket counter line if all you need to do is drop a bag. From the airlines' perspective, fewer bag drops at the ticket counter means hours saved on rote tasks -- and ideally, better customer satisfaction among fliers who really do need to speak to a ticket agent.

Lightening the checked baggage load

United isn't the first airline to offer self-service bag check-in, and it already offers the service at some other airports, including Boston Logan. The O'Hare rollout is almost certainly the shape of things to come, not just for United, but for other airlines, too.

American Airlines (NASDAQ: AAL  ) debuted a similar program at O'Hare in March, at which time the airline told the Tribune that the new self-check process is more than 50% faster than checking bags at the ticket counter. Alaska Airlines (NYSE: ALK  ) lets passengers on select nonstop flights print bag tags at the airport or at home after checking in online. Several overseas carriers have started offering print-at-home options, and United said that option is in the works for its passengers.

Australia-based Qantas goes a step further in streamlining bag check-in. Passengers traveling within Australia have the option to print tags at check-in kiosks on the way to the baggage drop. Qantas also sells permanent Q Bag Tags that let frequent fliers go straight to the bag drop before domestic Australian flights -- no printing required.

New tech to move passengers more quickly

United has been busy automating other parts of the airport experience this year, too. The airline has installed automated passport-control kiosks in Chicago, Newark, and Houston over the past year to cut down on customs wait times for returning passengers. (I used one of the APCs in Houston last month, and it was by far the speediest part of the reentry process. The machine took about a minute to scan my passport, record my customs information, take a dreadful photo, and print a receipt to hand to a customs officer.)

In August, United became the first domestic carrier to allow mobile check-in for international flights through its mobile app. Passengers can use their smartphones to scan their passport or store their passport data with the app to speed things along even more. Either way, the app makes passport scanning one less task that has to be handled by a ticket agent at the counter.

At the gate, United is giving self-boarding a trial run this year. Eight of United's 10 renovated gates in Boston give fliers the option to scan their own boarding passes, "making boarding quicker for everyone and facilitating on-time departures," according to a company press release.

Healthier bottom line, happier passengers

With airline profit margins thin overall, anything that streamlines operations and cuts costs is a win. United seems to be leading the pack when it comes to using mobile technology to steer passengers away from the ticket counter. It was the first domestic airline to provide a mobile check-in option at all of its U.S. airports, and it leads U.S. carriers in offering mobile check-in at airports abroad as well.

If United can pave the way on self-checking baggage and self-scanning of boarding passes, other airlines will have to follow suit to stay competitive. The fact that these innovations can improve flier satisfaction is a bonus.

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