Contemporary challenges in baggage handling

Posted: 7 June 2022 | | No comments yet

Ravi Khanna, Senior Security Specialist at the Bahrain Ministry of Transportation and Telecommunications, talks to Internaitonal Airport Review about the modern day challenges that airports face in their baggage handling operations, the technology involved and the upcoming improvements that can be made.

Contemporary challenges in baggage handling

The first image of a traveller with his baggage that comes to my mind is that of Heuin Tsang, the Chinese scholar, monk and a traveller to India, with a huge backpack of sorts which was quite similar to a modern-day rucksack. He had traversed many miles to learn more about the unknown. As travelling is synonymous with baggage, so is the baggage with a traveller. Baggage undergoes almost similar levels of scrutiny, checks and balances as the passenger, albeit a less polite one! Baggage and its handling are such major tasks at an airport, with dedicated areas assigned to accept, handle and process them in the baggage makeup area.

With two major attacks already attributed to checked-in or hold baggage, the security implications of baggage has only increased. The reconciliation of hold baggage with a passenger’s itinerary, a seemingly innocuous task, remains a mind-numbing activity with technology and physical manipulation requiring higher competence and is still considered a luxury at many airports. Marrying the two remains a daunting task – even in contemporary times. Security of hold baggage falls under the ambit of aviation security (AVSEC). In addition to other trades, such as airport operations, AVSEC as a discipline has always been an integral part of the civil aviation industry which comprises systems encompassing several interwoven layers of multiple functions.

The role of aviation security in baggage handling

With two major attacks already attributed to checked-in or hold baggage, the security implications of baggage has only increased”

To have a globally harmonised, holistic and uniform approach, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has established a set of five different standards and one recommended practice for measures relating to originating and transferring hold baggage in Annex 17 to the Chicago Convention of 1944. To achieve a synchronised approach to all measures implemented for the protection of hold baggage, use of technology and less intrusive methods are being utilised. However, the application and implementation of such standards in most cases are prescriptive in nature, and are generally backed by a set of rules and/or appropriate legislation, leaving not much room for interpretation. One of the major goals of the ICAO Global Aviation Security Plan (GASeP) is ‘no country is left behind’, however, globally it has been seen that areas such as hold baggage security are lacking significantly. Hence, to counter the adverse effects of the industry, airports are left with little or no choice but to implement the relevant measures in haste, with existing technology within the same infrastructure.

Viewing the matter through the lens of the Chief Security Officer (CSO)

The CSO of an airport is responsible for ensuring that the screening of originating and transfer hold baggage is carried out, unless other arrangements not to screen transfer baggage have been made. The current impetus is upon having a multi-level hold baggage screening system. Simultaneously, the airline security manager has to ensure the same, before being loading onto the aircraft. The ‘bug in the system’ is whether the adopted procedures provide sufficient technology integration with screening and other systems responsible for tallying or reconciling the originating/transferring hold baggage, wherever a non-multi-level hold baggage screening system has been adopted. The primary methods of screening of hold baggage and alarm resolution procedures, coupled with a percentage earmarked for secondary screening of hold baggage, including the associated tracking mechanism, is what concerns an airport CSO.

In a similar vein, appropriate use of technology to screen at all levels and handling baggage on a basis of reasoned selection to encourage rejection of hold baggage with complex images, is also paramount. Timed rejection rates at different levels, laid down procedures in the event of a power failure or breakdown of screening equipment, ensuring the removal of prohibited items in hold baggage before being put onboard an aircraft, and location and level with procedures to reunite passengers with hold baggage for physical searches, are some of the concerns when handling hold baggage using a multi-level screening system. The CSO is equally concerned about many other facets of airport security. However, baggage handling still tops the list on many occasions and often in equal degree of concern to security operations.

Technology involvement during planning affects aviation security

Current screening technology for hold baggage, with innovative use of existing equipment to suitably modify baggage handling at an airport in some cases, is quite remarkable. The multi-level screening methodology is equipped with automated and multi-view screening in a staggered manner with pre-agreed percentages of cleared baggage and/or baggage requiring further screening due to many factors. The major hurdle, as already identified, is the integration of technology in an archaic system with a minuscule scope of design alteration or an already optimised land-use of the airport. Screening equipment in use at many airports is retro-fitted to existing infrastructure, which is not always the best solution. However, with modification to the acceptance and handling process, the baggage flow is maintained often without adversely affecting throughput.

As per master planning principles, baggage flow routes should be easily accessible, allowing baggage to be recovered at various stages. Baggage facilities should be analysed as a flow plan and all systems should have maximum flexibility. Similarly, all baggage areas, notwithstanding the arrival or departure concourse, should be planned to provide the maximum clear, unobstructed space to facilitate adaptation to new systems and procedures.

As an airport planning de rigueur, selecting baggage handling systems would depend upon the size and nature of traffic, and local considerations such as the cost, availability and skills of local labour for the operation and maintenance equipment. Sudden surges or fluctuations in traffic flow would rapidly overshoot the perceived capacities of the system and equipment. Hence, most of the new airport BHS is being dovetailed right from planning to the construction phase, well before the ancillaries and other equipment start up. Features such as baggage sorters, automated tray retrieval systems and tubs to carry the hold baggage distances often as long as the runway itself, are all integral to the design element of the baggage handling system.

Planning principle factors in type and scale, and other details of various passenger terminal buildings functions, include screening facilities as well as the type of baggage to be carried, including profile and frequency of such baggage to be processed. In regional and some domestic airports where traffic and passenger loads are not on the scale of larger airports, arrival and departure baggage handling is done on a separate floor below the passenger departure floor. However, modern and newly designed passenger terminals acting as miniature hubs have also adopted the same principle. In some airports, due to screening equipment located within the same periphery, the arrival screening equipment with the same level of approval is utilised during contingencies arising out of power or mechanical equipment failures, with minimum to negligible disruption to operations, which is considered as a good example of business continuity plan. Similarly, the airport also caters for out-of-gauge (OOG) baggage, and handling such items also becomes efficient due to careful planning.

Contemporary challenges with baggage handling and security implications related to infrastructure, technology etc.

Although the aviation industry is marred by the pandemic which curtailed the growth of the industry, many big airports have managed to bounce back with hopes to achieve revised targets. However, many smaller, regional and or domestic airports that have been doing brisk business and were happy to act as feeders to the big hubs, would not look into enhancing the existing infrastructures and rather rely upon highly labour-intensive processes, where there is no dearth of the economical labour force, such as in some Asian airports. This could further slow any progress envisioned for the development of baggage handling processes, in the near future. This could result in a considerable number of delays, missed connections, complaints, loss of reputation, and a rise in reported incidents through various platforms. In 2020, SITA ascertained that 37 per cent of delayed baggage in the aviation industry is due to transfer mishandling. We have already seen a surge in the number of travellers at many airports around the world. An increased number of baggage handling issues could lead to information overload which in turn, contributes to duplication of effort and an overlapping issue of security and airport operations management.

Moreover, the industry has historically faced much criticism from the travelling public due to the inadequacies of baggage handling activity. Baggage handling has always been a contentious issue with airlines in certain sectors due to payload factors, wherein baggage is left behind due to payload restrictions on aircraft and at some airports for losing the baggage. Hence, added impetus to improving activity is long overdue.

Envisaged improvements in baggage handling – how far are we from implementing them?

BHS and seamless integration with a multi-level screening system (often called the ‘in-line’ screening) is not a stand-alone system, wherein data culled out from each system is stored in silos and is not available to be retrieved to make future informed decisions. One such element could be the TIP data, which should be stored in the airport data centre, and the functioning of screening machines interconnected to BHS ethernet networks using the airport network infrastructure. A robust cyber-security policy followed by an equally proactive team of implementers with proper malware installed, without unnecessarily slowing down the servers, is what the CSO, IT, Master planner and the airport operations data team should consider when making design alterations or constructing a bespoke solution.

High impact, high effectiveness solutions, which were in existence, could be a game-changer in the baggage handling sector of civil aviation. The intention of the industry is pretty clear with airlines taking the lead in many ways, as evident from SITA and IATA data from 2021, wherein 74 per cent of airlines agreed to provide the bag tags via kiosk/mobile, 79 per cent of airlines are providing bag drop unassisted and only 66 per cent of airlines have a mobile lost bag reporting and tracking mechanisms. However, airports need to provide more to support the initiatives. App-based services are not only easy to monitor, but also convenient. Lufthansa Airlines has pioneered one such initiative in collaboration with SITA to cater to ease passenger dilemma due to misplaced baggage.

Although some of the ideas to improve the system were available at least a decade ago at quite a high price, this is no longer the case, as they are now available at reasonably affordable rates. These efforts now include a tiny RFID (radio frequency identification) tag in the familiar barcoded label that gets tagged onto the baggage. This means each bag can be scanned automatically by machines as it weaves its way through the airport baggage handling system. It is quite a complex system due to handling anomalies and tracing for passengers. Among many ideas such as app-enabled tracking, barcode automatic tag readers (ATRs), RFID ATRs and image capture + AI computer vision technology, one vital piece of the puzzle is still based on the three principles of people, process and technology. If any one of the components is missing or inept, the recently reduced figure of $600 million in 2020 would increase gradually, and in some areas rapidly, in near future.


Ravi Khanna is an internationally recognised professional with more than 25 years of experience in the aviation security and safe transport of dangerous goods by air domains. He holds the prestigious ICAO AVSEC Professional Manager’s Certification and is one of the few individuals to hold the dual accreditation as ICAO certified AVSEC Auditor and Instructor. He has worked with some major airlines, and airports operator and is working for the government appropriate authority. His expertise in multifarious areas has enabled him to perform as a Policymaker, Project Manager, Technical Expert, Inspector and Trainer in various disciplines in aviation. Ravi holds a Master’s degree in security and risk management from the University of Leicester and holds a Bachelor’s degree in commerce from the University of Calcutta.

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