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PASSENGER SERVICES Last modified on December 6, 2012

On the case

Kim Madsen outlines the benefits of IT partnerships when it comes to providing state-of-the-art baggage handling systems.

Ask any airport management team what their objectives are and they will undoubtedly say providing their customers with the ultimate travel experience and a timely departure. 

With so many different systems now making up the infrastructure of a modern airport, the key to meeting these objectives lies in these systems working harmoniously, to optimise speed and operational efficiency. 

IT, of course, plays a critical role in allowing airports to remain competitive, and upgrading control systems need not be disruptive to normal service. 

In an ideal world, the various systems running within the airport would communicate and exchange data by working through a central point of control.

Some airports are already beginning to make this ideal a reality by establishing an airport management system centre where several areas of operation are monitored centrally and suitably managed to ensure their impact on each other is a positive one. 

This could involve a situation, for instance, where passengers are guided to the nearest parking space for their designated check-in area, or where additional check-in and screening positions are opened to cater for an expected increase in passenger flow.

The baggage handling process is not only one of the most
sizeable areas of operation, but is a key component in ensuring the ultimate passenger experience. Late, or worse still, lost baggage, is frequently cited as being the most annoying issue for air travellers, so it is crucial that airports invest in the latest baggage handling technology, which integrates well with other areas of operation for smooth baggage transition.

Modularity is not only relevant for the individual component parts of a system, but now is necessary for the overall IT control system. 

Modern baggage handling systems incorporate various functional sub-systems, such as check-in, screening, and early bag store and loading. All of which operate simultaneously, yet are controlled by one high-level master controller. 

Imagine the specific data for each piece of baggage being passed from one sub-system to another as the bag moves through the airport – it must be a significantly intelligent control system to ensure speed of flow and the known location of each bag at any given time.

One area that is seeing the benefit of IT intervention is at check-in. In all airports, a common international departure system used by all the airlines connects via the Internet to the individual airport’s baggage handling system. What happens though should there be a loss of communication and the baggage handling system no longer receives the information it requires to direct bags to the correct flights? 

Crisplant has enabled Helsinki Airport to allow for this very situation by installing a new manual encoding system for checked baggage, with valuable input from the operator, Finavia. 

In normal operation, each checked bag receives a baggage tag – a unique ten digit licence plate, at check-in. This tag is then assigned a baggage source message (BSM) by the airline’s departure control system, with this BSM holding passenger information and flight details. 

As the bag enters the baggage handling system, the bag tag is scanned, typically by an automatic tag reader (ATR), so that the system can read the ten digit code, search for it on the database and marry it up to the corresponding BSM, enabling the bag to be routed to the correct flight.

When the connection to the departure system is lost, the usual procedure is for check-in staff to continue to check-in bags, but for the staff at manual encoding stations within the baggage handling system, which are usually few in number, to manage the routing manually. 

In peak periods, these manual encoding stations struggle to cope with volume of throughput and this can result in delayed flights and disrupted passenger flow.

Realising that the throughput problem needed an innovative approach to avoid the situation arising at Helsinki, Crisplant worked with Finavia to move the manual encoding process up-stream to the check-in area. 

There, check-in staff ensures that bags each have a BSM assigned, so that they can immediately be routed to the designated gate, making for a speedier transition of baggage. This solution adds capacity when in fall-back mode, thereby ensuring flights are not delayed by the late arrival of baggage. 

Conventional push-button check-in procedures have been replaced with a touchscreen and an embedded PC before the bag is sent into the baggage handling system.

If a connection is now lost, the new IT approach to manual encoding at Helsinki means that the operator controlling the system can reconfigure the screens, which can be changed into a ‘Tag Required’ or ‘Tag or Flight Required’ mode. Check-in staff must then scan the bag tag with a hand-held scanner and select the flight manually on the screen, before allowing the bag to enter the handling system. 

In this particular situation, the system itself will make a local BSM containing the license plate number and flight – the barest information required to ensure the bag moves normally through the baggage handling system. 

The system is such that, once reconnection has been made to the international departure system, it will automatically complete and update all the details ordinarily required on the BSM.

One of the biggest challenges for any airport is to complete a major upgrade of its high-level controls within the baggage handling system, whilst maintaining normal, daily operation and with no disruption to passengers, airlines and handlers. 

Most software upgrades often follow a successful upgrade of the hardware platform for high-level controls and ensures that the baggage handling system is fail-safe and reliable, with the ability to expand and support growing numbers of passengers into the future. 

IT partners can provide invaluable support during these major, in-service upgrades, and have indeed done so in recent years during projects at airports such as Calgary, Johannesburg OR Tambo, Guangzhou and Copenhagen. 

During each of these upgrades the airport has worked in close co-operation with the IT partner, which has used its own experience and expertise to meet the airport’s business objectives. 

One of the key elements of an upgrade is to provide a fully redundant system designed to help with growing passenger numbers and to significantly improve the reliability and efficiency of the airport’s baggage handling.

One such project recently undertaken at Heathrow Airport involved the upgrade of the high level controls for the baggage handling systems in both Terminal 2 (T2) and Terminal 1 (T1) to create a single, integrated baggage facility. 

The project enabled the T1 baggage handling system to provide all screening, sortation, storage and transfer processes as an integral part of the new T2 end-to-end baggage process. 

The SCADA software in operation now also supports changes in terminal design resulting from ongoing baggage handling projects and provides a graphic overview of the entire baggage handling system including operational visualisation and a colour-coded status for each process within the system. 

Developing and implementing a major IT upgrade in any airport is just the beginning of a longer term relationship which can see the baggage handling system supplier operating and maintaining the equipment on behalf of the airport after the upgrade is complete. 

Such a service allows the airport to focus on the passenger experience and the overall running of the airport, with the supplier taking full responsibility and accountability for the baggage handling system. 

Crisplant operates this service for its clients Singapore Changi Airport and Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport, and will also be partnering with the New Doha International Airport to run and maintain its baggage handling system when the airport opens next year.

About the author
Kim Madsen is the senior system manager for software projects and engineering at Crisplant’s airport division.

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