We noticed you're blocking ads.

Keep supporting great journalism by turning off your ad blocker.

Questions about why you are seeing this? Contact us

Font Size

- Aa +

Sun 31 Aug 2008 04:00 AM

Font Size

- Aa +

Lost & found

With baggage handling mishaps rising across the world, aviation authorities are struggling to combat the problem.

With baggage handling mishaps rising across the world, aviation authorities are struggling to combat the problem.

Losing luggage is an expensive mistake, as Heathrow Airport officials recently found. In April, thousands of bags went missing following a baggage system malfunction at the hub's new Terminal 5. Meanwhile, hundreds of passengers were stranded as British Airways, which operates exclusively from T5, cancelled several flights.

The setback was a costly affair, with BA losing millions of dollars and delaying plans to move all long-haul flights to the terminal. Since the incident, efficiency levels have improved with the baggage system operating more effectively.

Overloaded baggage systems are a big problem, with airport authorities keen to make improvements. One alternative is the remote baggage check-in.

But T5 isn't the only terminal to experience operational faults. Indeed, IT services provider SITA says luggage handling system malfunctions at global hubs have increased in recent years.

"In Europe in 2004 there were about 13.7 mishandled bags in every thousand," says Jihad Boueri, SITA's regional director for the Middle East and Turkey. "By 2007 it grew by about 21% to 16.6 per thousand."

The company's management has studied the problem to discover the general causes behind baggage system failures. Its research included monitoring and reporting, trend analysis and equipment and system examination. "We could find many reasons behind the increase," Boueri says.

"Sometimes bags were not loaded properly or there were ticketing errors, arrival station mishandling, loading or off-loading mistakes; there were lots of human intervention errors in most of these areas. Sometimes there would be a delay in customs, security checking or tagging."

Though passengers usually receive lost luggage within 48 hours, SITA's management insist such delays are unacceptable. The IT company is working with the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which recently launched a baggage improvement programme (BIP), to address the issue.

The BIP focuses on five areas of improvement, according to Boueri. "Firstly we need to optimise information sent between the central control and baggage system and secondly we need to focus on training. The third thing is about messaging, ensuring bags get to the right place, and the fourth is the read rate of the bar code. The fifth thing is about increasing passenger awareness."

Overloaded baggage systems are a big problem, with airport authorities keen to make improvements. One alternative is the remote baggage check-in, where passengers departing from congested airports can drop their luggage at hotels and conference centres for transfer.

"This system would mean they would come to the airport without their baggage," Boueri says. "But a lot of things need to be worked out to ensure this would actually work properly."

For passengers using airport self check-in services, bag drop counters are available for quick and easy departure. At present, each airline has a separate bag drop area but Boueri says a common use counter will be available in the near future to speed up the check-in process.

According to SITA, the company's baggage management system offers airports a comprehensive scheme comprising three components, the bagmessage, bag manager and world tracer. Bag message, which delivers information about luggage while it travels through an airport, operates in more than 100 hubs worldwide.

"When you check-in baggage it will send a message saying you've checked in on this particular flight with a certain amount of luggage," Boueri says.

"This message is then sent to the server and distributed to the airports. "Any system that needs to find out the status of the bag, for example security, can do so using this. In 2007 there were around 750 million messages exchanged between departure control systems and automated baggage control."

The bag manager, or reconciliation system, is implemented in 50 airports including Abu Dhabi, Muscat and Kuwait.Designed to work in conjunction with the bagmessage service, the bag manager scans luggage and retrieves it after flights.

"Most importantly it can be used if someone's checked in but didn't go to the plane, so his or her baggage can then be found and removed from the plane," Boueri says.

The final part of SITA's baggage management system is the world tracer. This shared database of lost luggage is accessible to all airlines and employed by 400 customers globally. All information regarding misplaced or uncollected baggage is processed on a central database, so after locating the luggage it's quickly reunited with the passenger.

Airports may be slow to adopt RFID, but it will revolutionise baggage handling systems. This technology replaces traditional barcodes with a small chip. It is quicker at tracing lost luggage.

Abu Dhabi International Airport operates all three SITA baggage management technologies, all of which appear to work well in practice. Though several other airports are using these systems, Abu Dhabi International has recently been awarded the ‘SkyTrax Award for Efficiency & Speed of Baggage Reclaim.' According to Abu Dhabi Airports Company, the  award is testament to the hub's efficiency.

"Baggage handling is a key touch-point in every passenger's journey and we are pleased to have been recognised on our commitment to ensuring smooth flow and convenience for passengers through Abu Dhabi Airport," a spokesperson says.

Airports may be slow to adopt Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology, but Boueri believes it will revolutionise baggage handling systems. This technology replaces traditional barcodes with a small chip.

The difference is huge because with the two dimensional barcode you have to read it in one direction, which takes time." He adds using RFID is quicker and will reduce mishandled baggage.

In addition, the system can detect bags in seconds, helping trace lost luggage and minimising service recovery costs. With 50% of airports expecting RFID within five years and 45% of airlines anticipating it in the next three, Boueri is confident it will take no longer than 10 years to have the technology deployed worldwide.

Another company keen to introduce high-quality baggage handling systems is FKI Logistics, a global provider of automated material handling software. At present, FKI is constructing a tilt-tray system for Doha's new airport, which will be its first major Middle Eastern project.

Doha International will be using a ‘conventional' system consisting of traditional check-in conveyors, state-of the-art X-ray screens and a tilt tray system.

Henrik Cort, international sales manager for FKI Logistics says: "It's an electrical tilt tray system that actually tilts up and the bags fly off into a shoot. It's by far the most used system; I would say 80% of airports are using one like it."

The technology is similar to systems used in Singapore Changi's Terminal 3, which was successfully opened in January with no major glitches. The two systems are alike in terms of training, operation and maintenance.

"We have a maintenance contract in Changi and we have a similar one in Doha for five years," Cort says. "If things go well we'll add an additional five years and so on from there."

With capacity for 24 million passengers, Qatar's Doha International is expected to open in 2011. Set to be one of the largest airports in the Middle East, FKI's management consider the installation of its baggage system a ‘door opener' into the region.

Cort adds that the new system is a good match for Middle East requirements. "Often airports in this area are dealing with big luggage and one of the features of this system we're installing in Doha is that one bag can occupy two trays on the system. It can actually accept bags 1.4m long."

However, Cort also points out that while the baggage handling systems can carry large luggage, security scanners aren't equipped to deal with anything this size. "We'll need to see these systems coping with bigger bags," he says.In addition to the new conveyor belt, FKI will introduce an early baggage storage (EBS) system to accommodate large volumes of luggage.

"If someone arrives in Doha in the morning and doesn't leave until late at night, they can leave their baggage in the EBS and go to a meeting or go sightseeing," Cort says. "Their bags will then be released from bag storage once the flight is leaving."

With increasing numbers of international airports offering an early check-in system, it's essential that baggage handling systems keep pace with increasing passenger numbers. The configuration for Doha International Airport is based on a ‘redundancy' system.

We are seeing a steady improvement in overall baggage performance, particularly for customers flying direct from Heathrow.

"The different pieces of equipment are designed to avoid any single kind of failure but even if that happens there will be other [redundant] systems to take over," Cort says. With back-up computers and servers on hand for breakdowns, FKI's management considers it one of the most fail safe systems ever built.

Unlike T5, Doha will be operating a straightforward system, already tested in Changi's Terminal 3. "The system is certainly simpler than T5," Cort says. "Plus the fact that we will be the ones who operate and maintain the system moves a lot of the risk."

Despite Changi's T3 being the same size as Heathrow's T5, the tilt tray baggage handling system was implemented and running smoothly from day one. Although Doha International is a much bigger project, management at FKI Logistics is confident the baggage handling system will be successful.

Cort adds: "Some of the people that will be at Doha when it opens will be from Singapore so we'll transfer a lot of the expertise from there. We will also collect experience from different airports which will benefit Doha when it opens."

To ensure the system works from the outset, FKI has organised a month long training programme for baggage handlers. Cort believes the scheme will ensure smooth operations from the very beginning when Doha airport opens.

"It's actually fairly simple because the whole area is clearly signed by big screens that will show what flights different bags are going to," Cort says.

"Similarly bags destined for transfer are clearly marked to avoid any confusion during handling. It's simple things like that which have caused problems in the past but are easily avoided."

Terminal trouble

In April, British Airways' CEO Willie Walsh said T5's opening would improve Heathrow Airport's operation, despite its early troubles.  "We have been running a normal schedule for more than three weeks and more than one million passengers have travelled through the terminal.

"We are also seeing a steady improvement in overall baggage performance, particularly for customers flying direct from Heathrow. Reliability for customers transferring between flights is also getting better."

Since the initial disruption, BA's management insist real progress has been made. After the baggage fiasco, specially assigned couriers were appointed to deliver customers' bags to individual addresses.

However, given the magnitude of the problem and the various destinations this was a time consuming process. A British Airways spokesperson said: "We continue to experience some technical issues with the baggage system but we are working with the manufacturer and BAA [airport operator] to resolve these as quickly as possible."

BA's area commercial manager for the Middle East and Pakistan, Paul Starrs, admitted T5's opening was disastrous. "We let customers down; we have admitted that and we have absolutely apologised," he says. "We fully believed we were going to have a fully-functional baggage system and a fully-functional airport when we moved in."

Starrs added that while the delays didn't help the situation, once the baggage handling problems were fully resolved things would improve: "I'm confident that T5 is going to be viewed as one of the best and premier airports in the world, and with BA being the principle carrier out of that and I think likewise our reputation will benefit as well.

Arabian Business: why we're going behind a paywall

For all the latest transport news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
Real news, real analysis and real insight have real value – especially at a time like this. Unlimited access ArabianBusiness.com can be unlocked for as little as $4.75 per month. Click here for more details.