As the aviation industry continues its trajectory towards a future enriched with technological innovations, the impact of these advancements stretches beyond the customer-facing “retail aspects” of air travel, such as the flight booking experience or customer service. The industry also experiences significant strides in operational areas such as aircraft turnarounds and flight planning. These innovations are not only enhancing operational efficiency but also paving the way for more sustainable practices in the aviation sector.
Another vital component of the aviation operations ecosystem often escapes the limelight but is equally crucial to the industry's overall performance – baggage management. The handling of passenger luggage is a complex operation that demands precision, efficiency, and innovation.
Today, the baggage handling process is undergoing a transformative journey, driven by various factors, which we will uncover in this article. These advancements aim to optimize the entire baggage lifecycle, from check-in to final delivery, significantly reducing the chances of mishandling and enhancing the overall passenger experience.
We will examine the challenges faced, the innovative solutions being implemented, and the tangible benefits these advancements bring to airlines, airports, and, most importantly, to passengers.
Status Quo of Baggage Management
In the current baggage management system, upon an aircraft's arrival, baggage is usually unloaded and immediately categorized into local and transfer baggage. For some network carriers, baggage can also be pre-sorted and containerized via Unit Load Devices (ULDs) based on whether it's local or connecting. Local baggage, unless required to pass through customs, is promptly transported to the baggage reclaim area. Transfer baggage either makes its way to the sorting facility for routing to subsequent flights or, in cases where time is of the essence, a direct “tail-to-tail” transfer to the connecting aircraft is initiated.
Beyond the multiple steps involved, tail-to-tail transfers are notably labor-intensive. This process requires individual deliveries to specific aircraft stands, contrasting the more straightforward approach of depositing them at a nearby baggage induction point.
The entirety of this system, with its involvement of various stakeholders and the criticality of synchronized timing across all steps, faces increasing vulnerability when passenger volumes are high. Consequently, as more travelers take to the skies, the challenge of efficiently managing a greater volume of baggage intensifies, highlighting the fragility of the system, especially during peak travel seasons.
Rising Mishandled Baggage Rates
In baggage management, the airline industry has consistently improved its handling efficiency, with the mishandled baggage rate decreasing to 0.6% of all passenger bags between 2016 and 2019. This rate further dropped to 0.35% during 2020, largely due to the drastically reduced passenger numbers resulting from global travel restrictions and the pandemic's impact on air travel.
However, as travel rebounded post-pandemic more rapidly than many expected, this positive trend unfortunately reversed. According to SITA's latest Baggage IT Insights report, the mishandled baggage rate escalated from under 0.5% of all passenger bags pre-pandemic to nearly 0.8% in 2022.
Breaking down these numbers, it's revealed that 80% of mishandled bags were merely delayed, while the remaining 20% were either lost or damaged.
It is important to note that the baggage-handling challenge becomes more acute in the context of connecting flights, particularly in international travel. SITA's data indicates that:
- Transfer bags constituted the majority of mishandled bags in 2022.
- The rate of mishandled bags on international flights was found to be eight times higher compared to domestic flights.
This is the case, as mishandling during transfer is one of the primary reasons why luggage may be delayed or lost, and often occurs when handling systems do not have enough time to transfer bags between flights. So, the likelihood of mishandling increases the more baggage is transferred - making trips with multiple stops especially vulnerable to luggage complications.
Besides causing immense frustration for passengers, the problem of mishandled baggage also represents a significant financial burden for the industry. Airport Industry News highlighted that mishandled baggage, particularly the over 4 million bags mishandled during transfers, cost the industry an alarming $2.2 billion USD in 2022 alone.
What factors are contributing to this alarming uptick in mishandled baggage rates?
The next section delves into the underlying causes of this rising trend.
The Root Cause Behind Mishandled Baggage
The increase in mishandled baggage rates since 2020 can primarily be attributed to the labor shortage at airports. During the pandemic, the travel industry faced a significant downturn, leading to the dismissal of thousands of employees. However, as travel resumed, the industry struggled to rehire staff, resulting in a manpower deficit, particularly in ground operation roles like baggage management. A 2023 IATA survey found that 60% of ground handling supervisors felt they didn't have enough qualified staff to ensure smooth operations.
This scarcity has led to a reduction in the number of bags delivered directly from one aircraft to another (tail-to-tail transfers), resulting in an increased number of bags failing to connect to their intended flights. Moreover, the resurgence of international travel and persistent congestion at airports compound the challenge.
As Aviation Pros have pointed out, a significant issue in baggage management is the absence of comprehensive, real-time data sharing among airlines, airports, and ground handling teams. This gap in interconnected data flow and real-time tracking capabilities often results in misplaced luggage and delays. In this context, OAG plays a crucial role by enabling data connectivity. By simplifying complex data and integrating seamlessly into various systems, OAG provides a consistent and reliable source of information that helps streamline baggage management across different stakeholders.
Prioritizing Baggage Management Through Tech
In response to increasing mishandled baggage rates, there has been a concerted effort from both travelers and airlines to enhance baggage management through innovative technology solutions.
Travelers, faced with a lack of clarity and real-time information regarding their luggage, have increasingly turned to personal tracking devices like Apple's AirTags. These gadgets offer a sense of control and reassurance by enabling passengers to track their luggage.
The growing interest in self-tracking solutions is evident in online search trends. For example, online searches for “luggage tracking” have seen a dramatic increase of 220% over the past year, while Google searches related to luggage and “Airtag” have more than quadrupled since early 2022 (see chart below).
On the airport and airline front, there's a clear recognition of the need for improved technology in baggage management as well. According to the Airport Business 2023 Baggage Handling System survey, 75% of North American airports plan to upgrade their baggage handling systems within the next five years.
According to SITA research, real-time baggage status updates are also becoming a top priority for airlines:
- Currently, 57% of airlines have equipped their staff with mobile access to real-time baggage information, a figure that's expected to rise to 84% by 2025.
- Additionally, a significant 67% of airlines plan to extend this capability to passengers, a considerable jump from the current 25%.
The latter shift towards providing passengers with baggage status information is particularly crucial. To deliver an optimal passenger experience, it's essential that airlines not only streamline their internal processes but also share relevant information with travelers.
Creating a user-friendly baggage tracking dashboard for passengers would bridge the gap between airlines and their customers, enhancing transparency and satisfaction. So the key to fully optimizing the baggage journey lies not only in the seamless flow of real-time data among airports, airlines, and ground handlers but also in empowering passengers with access to this information.
The Rising Tide of Baggage Management Tech
Fortunately, the recent surge in mishandled baggage rates has catalyzed a wave of innovation in baggage management technology, promising transformative solutions for both industry operators and travelers.
The global airport baggage handling software market, for example, is witnessing remarkable growth. Projections indicate that the market size, valued at $1.57 billion USD in 2023, is set to expand to an impressive $2.75 billion USD by 2030. This represents a robust compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of nearly 10%, underscoring the sector's dynamic and upward trajectory. This forecast, supported by studies from firms like Mordor Intelligence, reflects the sector's vigorous expansion and potential.
The core appeal of these advanced baggage handling systems lies in their comprehensive approach to enhancing every step of the baggage journey. They proactively address issues like misplacement or loss, by integrating passenger and baggage data and identifying potential problems before they escalate. This preemptive strategy is vital for managing high-priority flights and passenger connections efficiently.
Key to this process is the software's ability to seamlessly integrate with various airline systems, from flight information to booking and departure control. This integration ensures real-time updates are shared across all relevant teams, from dispatchers to ground handlers.
Advanced software systems also aim to balance tail-to-tail transfers, considering resource availability and workload. Baggage managers can define specific time windows for cut-off times, within which the software dynamically maximizes tail-to-tail connections. This innovative functionality is currently undergoing trials with leading airlines, showcasing its potential to streamline operations.
Parallel to the importance of software systems in managing baggage flows, Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) technology has arguably played the most significant role in the context of airport baggage handling innovation in the past few years. RFID offers several advantages over traditional barcode scanning methods. It allows for the automatic tracking of luggage throughout the baggage handling process without the need for direct line-of-sight scanning. This not only enhances the efficiency of baggage tracking but also significantly reduces the chances of baggage mishandling. Delta Airlines, for example, handling way over 100 million bags annually, was one of the first carriers to adopt RFID technology for baggage handling. Since 2016, the carrier has expanded its RFID tracking to all of its 344 global stations. This technological advantage may be one of the reasons why Delta has consistently scored better mishandling rates compared to its main legacy competitors, American and United. By the end of 2023, Delta not only ranked as the second-best U.S. airline for baggage handling but also achieved an impressive baggage mishandling rate of just 0.34%.
However, RFID turns out not to be the all-encompassing solution for tracking baggage, facing a range of challenges. High implementation costs, a lack of standardized interoperability between different airports and airlines, and limited coverage in some areas hinder its effectiveness.
Given that the perfect tech solution is not yet in place, airports and airlines are actively engaging in internal innovation programs themselves, experimenting with the latest baggage management solutions. These initiatives are not mere trials but concerted efforts to revolutionize how baggage is handled, tracked, and managed, significantly reducing the number of incidences of mishandling and delays.
Let us explore some of the most promising companies and use cases advancing next-gen innovative baggage management solutions. They offer a glimpse into the future of baggage handling in the aviation industry.
Here's an overview of some notable projects:
Full automation at Changi Airport: Changi Airport showcases a notable advancement in baggage handling with its fully automated Terminal 2 Early Baggage Storage (EBS) system. Spanning 5,120 square meters, this system features automated cranes that manage luggage storage and retrieval across a 13 km subterranean network, connecting three terminals. The shift to full automation has significantly streamlined operations, allowing the airport to free up to eight workers per shift to do more productive work, thus setting a new standard in efficient and automated baggage management.
High-tech baggage handling at Denver International Airport: In December 2022, Denver International Airport upgraded its baggage handling capabilities with the introduction of the Checked Baggage Inspection System (CBIS) by TSA. This sophisticated system, which costs around USD $160 million, utilizes an extensive network of conveyor belts to efficiently sort and track luggage through the security screening process. Separately, Southwest Airlines and Leonardo have embarked on a project to reshape the transfer bags terminal via next-generation cross-belt sorter technology.
Automatic “reflight” bag management at Munich Airport: Lufthansa Group, in collaboration with SITA, has introduced a new baggage management solution at Munich Airport: SITA’s WorldTracer Auto Reflight. This system streamlines the handling of “rush bags” – luggage that doesn't initially accompany the passenger on their flight. Utilizing the original bag tag information, WorldTracer Auto Reflight automatically suggests the most suitable alternative flight routing for these bags, with SITA estimating that the widespread adoption of such automated reflighting could potentially save the global aviation industry up to USD $30 million annually in costs related to mishandled baggage.
Stansted Airport's £70m upgrade: The UK's Stansted Airport completed a major overhaul of its baggage system post-pandemic, installing 2.4km of new track – the world's longest system of this kind. The upgrade includes 180 automated carts and accelerates baggage handling to impressive speeds, ensuring bags are ready for loading in just six minutes.
Self-driving luggage vehicles at CVG: North Kentucky International Airport (CVG) has been experimenting with self-driving vehicles for luggage transportation between terminals and aircraft. The project, initiated in 2020 with technology from ThorDrive, involves converting a standard ground tug into an autonomous vehicle, showcasing an innovative approach to airside operations.
These projects represent only a few examples of technology-driven solutions in baggage management going beyond RFID, providing a glimpse into the aviation industry's commitment to innovation and enhanced operational efficiency.
Startups Revolutionizing Baggage Management
The baggage management sector is also experiencing a surge of innovation, spearheaded by tech companies and startups. Their solutions range from real-time tracking via Bluetooth to advanced biometrics.
Here's a glimpse into some of these pioneering companies:
INFORM's GS baggage software planning: This long-standing aviation company is a global leader in offering intelligent optimization solutions tailored for airlines, airports, and ground handlers. Its platform, GS RealTime, focuses on optimizing the deployment of staff and equipment, ensuring maximum efficiency in baggage handling processes.
Brock Solutions: The company is a key player in optimizing existing baggage handling systems (BHS) for airports and airlines. Brock Solutions provides solutions for modernizing and automating baggage, enhancing efficiency across various airport sizes.
Bob.io's TravelTag: The unique Bluetooth tracker by 2017-founded Bob.io offers a dual advantage. It provides airlines and passengers with live updates on baggage and ground-handling equipment, ensuring transparency and efficiency in baggage management.
AirPortr: The solution by AirPortr integrates with airlines to provide a seamless luggage check-in and delivery experience. Travelers can have their bags collected from their homes, offices, or hotels at a scheduled time, with AirPortr ensuring the bags are checked in at the airport. This service not only adds convenience for travelers but also helps airports optimize baggage handling infrastructure and reduce congestion.
BagsID: Operating as a mobile recognition app, London-based BagsID is set to revolutionize baggage handling with its biometric approach. By identifying bags based on unique physical characteristics, like scratches or dents, BagsID negates the need for barcodes or RFID tags. This technology, tested at Aeroporti di Roma, promises to enhance efficiency and accuracy in baggage tracking.
Orok: OROK is at the forefront of automating baggage and cargo handling on the airside. Its solution includes a fleet of Autonomous Guided Vehicles (AGV), supervised by a server that performs data analytics and incorporates AI. This approach is intended to significantly improve the logistics flow within the airport environment.
The Future of Baggage Management
As the aviation industry continues to evolve, the role of data and technology in enhancing baggage management is becoming increasingly pivotal. The innovations we've highlighted in this article represent a significant shift towards smarter, more efficient, and customer-focused baggage handling systems.
The challenge often lies in overcoming legacy systems, which can be restrictive due to their antiquated nature. The future lies in cloud-based solutions capable of integrating and analyzing relevant data across the entire baggage journey. This approach not only improves tracking and reflighting, but also represents a broader industry trend: reimagining data infrastructure to support innovative technologies and emerging practices.
Embracing this evolution involves not just the adoption of more advanced conveyor belts and RFID but also a commitment to the sharing and democratization of airline data. This shift toward open and interconnected data systems stands to benefit the entire aviation ecosystem. It paves the way for more collaborative efforts, fostering industry-wide improvements in efficiency, sustainability, and passenger experience.
In this transformative journey, our focus at OAG is on enabling this evolution by providing accurate, real-time data that supports the industry in embracing the potential of next-generation baggage management solutions. We're committed to contributing to a future where data-driven practices underpin the continuous improvement and innovation within the airline industry.