During the early days of commercial aviation, it was commonplace for passengers to drive up to an aircraft in their own vehicle and load their own bags.
The popularity of air travel meant that this luxury ended a long time ago, of course, and mechanised baggage handling systems have been part of the furniture of airport terminals for more than 50 years.
However, there is still great diversity in baggage automation levels throughout the world.
For while some gateways have a fairly rudimentary baggage handling process, often amounting to little more than poking a bag through a hole in the wall, others boast the latest in state-of-the-art technology.
And with global passenger numbers expected to more than double from the 2.8 billion handled last year to 5.9 billion by 2030 – more people means more luggage – the race is already on to make the baggage handling process more efficient and accurate than ever before.
Back to the future
The relatively recent development of the airport baggage handling system (BHS), means that the vast majority of today’s systems have experienced a series of upgrades over the years.
The first major development in the industry was to connect baggage systems with check-in desks. But labels were read manually and the baggage build was still a labour-intensive process.
As security worries appeared, screening was introduced. Eventually, check-in islands became connected, robotics were introduced and baggage feeds became regulated. Even so, today’s sortation systems still rely on a degree of manual handling for the final process.
“Increasingly, we are seeing a sophisticated travel experience being offered to passengers,” says Andrew Price, IATA’s head of baggage services. “That means the back-end systems have to become increasingly sophisticated, too. Airports of the future will rely heavily on their baggage system. They will need to deliver a flexible product but they will also need to deliver certainty.”
The next wave
Certainty will benefit the industry and passenger alike. Mishandled bags cost the industry $2.58 billion in 2011. According to the SITA Baggage Report, 25.8 million bags were mishandled last year, down from 32.3 million in 2010.
The report suggests 85.6% of the mishandled bags were delayed, 11.9% were damaged or tampered with and 2.5% were lost or claimed stolen.
Clearly, despite the progress to date, much more needs to be done to improve baggage handling. Fortunately, the next wave of technology has already begun to have an impact on the sector, driven in part by changes to the travel process.
Self-service is the key to the new golden era. Boarding cards and bag tags can be printed at home, for example, which is effectively another nail in the coffin for airline-specific check-in areas.
The bag tags commonly contain all the relevant passenger and flight information, so check-in can be reconfigured as a single common area for all airlines, potentially freeing up a lot of space in the departures hall.
This is good news for constrained gateways that yearn for greater flexibility within their existing footprint.
Airports will also benefit from changes in the baggage build-up area. IATA’s Price anticipates larger storage facilities for bags that are at the airport more than 45 minutes ahead of departure.
This will be especially relevant for transfer-heavy hubs. Build time – stacking bags together for loading – will be compressed considerably and rely heavily on robotics.
And the improvements will not stop there. “Even though there will be more travellers and more bags in the future, the ultimate build-out of a baggage system has to focus on quality and not quantity,” insists Price.
“We can handle the throughput, but it has to be done in a manner befitting 21st century customer service.”
The vision of what the ultimate baggage system will look like is constantly evolving over time as new technologies become available and new passenger requirements come into focus.
But it is highly likely total flexibility will dominate. Price’s vision is a fully integrated, secure global baggage system where a bag can enter and exit the system anywhere in the world and be tracked from departure to arrival.
Total visibility will be the complementary service to this functionality. Airlines, airports and ground handlers will be able to pinpoint the bag at any point in time and even see the resources used in its journey.
Security will remain paramount, but in this global system, the screening process will need to happen only once. It is envisaged that local screening machines at the point the bag enters the system will be able to pass on all relevant information to other stages of the journey and to other systems, preventing the need for costly re-screening.
Perhaps most importantly, all of this information will be available to the passenger via SMS, smartphone or tablet app. Vitally, the customer will enjoy the comfort of knowing not only that their bag has actually been loaded (and onto connecting flights if they transfer), but also what carousel it will be on at the destination airport.
Decoupling the system
Suppliers are likely to play a huge part in making this future a reality. “Airports are focused on their passengers receiving the ultimate experience on their way through the terminal, as well as a punctual departure, and the baggage handling process is crucial to both of these objectives,” says Crisplant’s Christoph Oftring.
“So, while airports are expert at providing a great experience for their passengers, the baggage handling system supplier knows all about handling and sorting their baggage.”
Decoupling – building systems in a modular fashion – is an emerging trend, says Oftring, noting that modern baggage handling systems consist of functional sub-systems, such as the check-in area, screening area, early bag store area and loading area.
“When moving from one area to another, it is like walking through an open door and shaking hands – the handshake being the data of each bag being passed from one system to another,” he says.
Advantages of modular systems are that they are more flexible for modifications such as extensions, bypasses and new screening regulations. They allow airports and operators to react to airlines’ needs much faster than before. Modular systems are also less complicated and easier to operate, and if sub-systems are created in parallel, redundancy is provided automatically. Finally, modular systems can be designed and implemented much faster. One module can be copied again and again. This means short lead times for implementation and, at the same time, reduced risk.
“In a perfect situation, a baggage handling system is made of modular sub-systems, based on modular elements designed using modular components,” adds Oftring.
According to Oftring, it also makes sense for the supplier of the baggage handling system to operate and maintain the equipment on behalf of an airport.
“Posting an experienced team of experts permanently on-site at the airport allows you to guarantee that the system is always well maintained and delivering full availability,” he notes.
Singapore and Johannesburg are among the airports that have already opted for this option with Crisplant, soon to be joined by the New Doha International Airport, which is scheduled to open in December 2012.
Baggage sortation systems may be a world away from aviation’s early days of self-loading, but in many ways, system development is actually taking the process back to its roots by making it truly passenger-centric.
Passengers will once again know for sure exactly where their bags are at any point in the journey. The days of complete system transparency are returning.