Delivering a successful baggage operation during aviation’s recovery

Posted: 26 May 2021 | | No comments yet

Andrew Price, former Head of Global Baggage Operations at the International Air Transport Association (IATA), explains how to run a successful airport baggage operation as volumes return to the baggage hall, and how you can best support your passengers with their baggage journey.

Delivering a successful baggage operation during aviation’s recovery

If you are an airline, airport or ground handler, then I hope that you have managed to repatriate the baggage that was mishandled during 2020 and are enjoying a very low level of mishandling at the moment. 

In terms of the processes during the pandemic, there are two primary touchpoints on a baggage journey. The first is when the airline accepts the bag from the passenger, and the second is when the passenger accepts the bag back from the airline. One of the essentials is to be able to undertake both of these processes without having to interact with more people than necessary. This means using a baggage drop at the start of the journey and having some form of notification at the end of the journey, informing the passenger that their bag is on the reclaim belt. 

Baggage drops can be touchless, and having cameras in your baggage drop is a valuable asset in a good system. Basic machine learning can tell us about the colour and type of bag, identify damage, assist in baggage tracing and is generally useful to have. 

Creating a digital relationship with the passenger

When the passenger is collecting their bag at reclaim, there are also many ways to ensure that the bag is ready to be collected, before the passenger approaches the reclaim itself. The issue here remains that there is a reluctance to have terminating baggage messages available, and also a lack of passenger contact data. Where this data is missing, airports still have an opportunity to provide baggage receipt matching through a simple application (the passenger scans their receipt, the airport matches it to the 753 scan on arrival, the passenger is then notified through the app). I am really surprised that so few airports offer this, as passengers generally want to know when their bag is on the reclaim, and it provides a great entrance to a deeper digital relationship with the passenger. 

There has been quite a lot of discussion about how to best handle bags in the operational environment. I have seen a lot of adverts for fogging machines and UV lighting that will ensure that the baggage is sterilised before it is handled, and I would encourage anyone looking at these solutions to ensure that they are aware of the guidance for handling that is available on the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) website (under COVID-19: All resources). It is also important to look at how baggage handling could become more sustainable as the industry recovers from COVID-19.

Tailoring your baggage operations to the size of your airport

When we introduced Resolution 753, one airport operator came to me in despair. They had been quoted a seven-figure cost for implementing 753, and their operation simply could not cope with it. I discussed this with them and proposed some other solutions on a per-bag basis, which would reduce these costs. Anyone working on a per-bag basis today is suffering greatly, as their revenues have crashed, but is there a better method to cope with your 753 and reconciliation needs? You could develop and own your own system or purchase a system – both options would probably suit larger hub airports. Smaller airports should look at companies that lease equipment and provide a service irrespective of baggage volumes. The airport that was quoted seven figures could realistically have had their needs met on a fraction of the cost as a monthly lease.

Sustainable baggage operations

We need to have a solid ecosystem that allows for innovation and progresses the baggage journey”

The reason I raise this example is to focus on a sustainable operation, both for the operator and their suppliers. We need to have a solid ecosystem that allows for innovation and progresses the baggage journey. That journey has challenges in terms of identification, tracking, handling, customer communication and cost, and there are key solutions to each of these challenges.

In terms of identification and tracking, the industry resolved to adopt Radio Frequency Identification (RFID). This is making slow progress outside of China, where it is a strong component of the baggage journey. Despite this slow progress, RFID is still the best option for identifying baggage, due to the low cost of infrastructure needed to read the baggage tag and not relying upon a line of sight to the baggage. The use of RFID enables other processes to be implemented easily.

Computer vision offering a feedback loop 

The handling challenge includes ensuring that the baggage is not either accepted whilst damaged or damaged during the journey. RFID has no role here, but computer vision does. Images collected at baggage acceptance can be used to identify if a bag is already damaged when accepted and compared to images collected when a claim is being made. With a sufficiently large data set and airline agnostic data being made available, patterns of damage could be identified that would show key routes for damage, and then these hotspots could be addressed. Baggage material and types that are more frequently damaged could also be identified, and assistance could then be given to baggage manufacturers to improve their product’s durability. 

The importance of passenger data 

Customer communication has been a hot topic for years and still is today. The first issue is being able to contact the customer directly. Travel agents often include their own details in the passenger’s booking, making it impossible for the airline to notify passengers when there is an itinerary change. In the baggage process, this is even harder, because the baggage information is widely disseminated and, therefore, contains minimal passenger information. Contacting a passenger means that the airline must cross reference the name to the flight and find the right passenger. There have also been many heated discussions about whether to inform a passenger if their bag has not made a flight, as this can cause them to worry for the entire journey. This decision is a matter for each airline to decide, but getting the right contact details for a passenger should be common practice. A massive global database of tracking information that allows a passenger to register their bag receipt and contact details in the event of mishandling might be more proactive than today’s tracing systems, but it raises many privacy concerns for both passengers and airlines.  

Investing in technology

The challenges of cost are also perpetual; even when the industry is making a slim 10 per cent return on investment, baggage investment is limited. As we move into 2021, we will need to see more focus on sourcing the right deals for growth to enable businesses to retain budget for innovation. Baggage often leads the way from artificial intelligence (AI) to computer vision, but seldom seems to be the winner when it comes to spend.  

There is a lot more to be said about making baggage work in the new aviation environment, from how baggage freedom could save billions and improve the customer experience, to how little innovations on processes can make a huge impact on mishandling performance. 

Now is the time to take a close look at the operation and prepare for the return of passengers in late 2021. I am sure that, together, it is possible to make baggage work calmly and quietly for our passengers and keep them in blissful ignorance of the complexity of moving a suitcase from A to B. 

Until the end of January 2021, Andrew Price was the Head of Global Baggage Operations at IATA. This role allowed him to work on a large number of baggage projects around the globe, solving baggage operational issues for both airlines and airports. Price has also worked with many industry suppliers to develop their products and has a firm belief that technology can reduce operational costs, whilst improving both productivity and the customer experience. 

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