Handling the Olympics

Posted: 16 March 2005 | Michael Rumpf, Head of Baggage Handling Services, Athens International Airport (AIA) | No comments yet

According to the head of baggage handling at AIA, the immense demands placed on the baggage handling services during the 2004 Olympics prompted some unconventional solutions.

According to the head of baggage handling at AIA, the immense demands placed on the baggage handling services during the 2004 Olympics prompted some unconventional solutions.

Huge logistic events such as the Olympic Games entail unique challenges for the host city’s airport. Heavy inbound and outbound peaks stress facilities and systems to their capacities and beyond. The Athens 2004 Olympic Games were undoubtedly one of the greatest challenges faced by AIA, ‘Eleftherios Venizelos’, since its opening in March 2001. The airport had to prove its capability to handle a record number of passengers, aircraft movements and baggage, while accommodating efficiently the special requirements of the Olympic family.

Athens International Airport S.A. embarked on this project with the objective of offering the warmest welcome and the best impression to the Olympic family and the thousands of visitors to Athens. This was only possible with the entire airport community and all external parties working as a team. All issues and their operational solutions were formulated into one integrated ‘Olympic Games Operational Plan’, developed on the basis of the Sydney 2000 experience. This plan covered all of the fields relating to the airport’s Olympic operations, and identified the major tasks.

Pre-planning baggage services

Our first objective was to identify the real challenge in terms of numbers. Obviously, the numbers of passengers and baggage would rise and the share of out-of-gauge items would naturally increase. But by how much? When would the peaks be? And how heavy? Pre-planning therefore started with information gathering. Before we could determine how we would operate, we retrieved data from the airports of previous host cities, such as Sydney and Barcelona. We determined the peak arrival and departure days of the Olympic Games, the PAX per bag ratio of the Olympic family, as well as special operational issues. During this phase, we kept in contact with the National Olympic Committees of participating countries for the details of their travel plans and requirements. Close cooperation was also maintained with the Organising Committee ‘Athens 2004’ throughout the entire period of the Games.

This enabled a detailed breakdown of the demand into days and hours, allowing for a comparison to the limits of our terminal and baggage handling system. We then identified the key issues – it was clear that on most days the system had sufficient capacity from the perspective of a 24 hour period. However, because the traffic would be distributed unevenly over the course of a day, with peaks sometimes exceeding capacity and lasting longer than normal, it was necessary to consider that the usual timeframes for preventive and corrective maintenance would be drastically limited.

Separating security and baggage

High security standards can be considered especially important for the international airport involved in the first Olympics post 9/11. AIA has a three-stage in-line screening system with EDS equipment at Level 1 and CT equipment at Level 3. This was the minimum requirement set for all departing baggage during the Games. As requested by the Greek Police and the Organising Committee, the Olympic family also had to be separated from the public when processed at the airport. At first this sounds inconvenient; however, it does offer some advantages. It is an opportunity for swift and much more efficient handling of the entire process.

Within this framework, an existing building was modified into an express facility for the quick processing of the Olympic family. Hold baggage screening equipment was set up; three Smiths-Heimann EDtS machines at Level 1 guaranteed high throughput and advanced security levels and two InVision CTX 5500s were used as Level 3 machines to clear alarmed bags from Level 1. Baggage for U.S. bound flights was fed through the TSA certified machines from InVision at the first level of screening. Fortunately, the large tunnel size of the Smiths-Heimann EDtS made further OOG screening equipment unnecessary. 14 check-in counters served all passengers holding baggage items. A passenger screening area was set up using small conventional X-ray machines for on-board luggage screening and the obligatory metal detector archways. In addition, trace detectors were used for the examination of hand luggage.

Problematically, not only was the amount of baggage higher than usual but there was also an increased demand for screening. Hold baggage screening capacity was therefore reinforced throughout the airport. Besides the additional screening units at the express facility, each of the main terminal’s baggage halls were equipped with four additional X-ray units for in-gauge and out-of-gauge baggage. Four more EDS units were operated in different locations at the terminal.

Human resources

In addition to the ‘Golden Ambassadors Programme’ developed by AIA for the secondment of airport company staff from non-operations departments into operational, 130 manhandling staff were seasonally recruited and five specialised baggage handling jobs were given to international students from Germany, Italy and Croatia in the framework of internships.

The arrivals phase

The inbound phases bring you face-to-face with the baggage that has to be processed on departure. Even though we had prepared ourselves the amount of baggage was staggering.

The arrival system was considered sufficient but had to be utilised to maximum capacity for long periods of time. Therefore, in order to cope and create a buffer, we planned special operations for arriving passengers and their bags. Even with sufficient capacity, delayed baggage claims from the arrival systems could potentially still cause problems. The endeavour then was to minimise the time the bags actually spent circulating on the reclaim carousels. Where necessary, airport staff took bags off the conveyors, marshalling them nearby. In some cases athletes’ baggage was directly trucked from the aircraft to the Olympic Village. Furthermore, an amount of baggage was claimed by airport staff and handed to the owners at the bus mall. This ensured swift evacuation of bags and passengers from the arrival concourse. The passenger flow of arriving Olympic groups was also monitored. If an entire group was too far from the claim area, we held back the bags from the racetracks. A special reclaim was also assigned to passengers who had to be accredited upon arrival and an accreditation area provided.

Overall it was essential to avoid congestion in the reclaim hall at any time. Given the amount of incoming baggage, any problem in this process would have created a knock-on effect that would have been so severe that it could have endangered the entire arrival operation.

Departures and off airport processing

The biggest test was the departure phase. Unlike the arrivals that were spread across a period of weeks, the departures were concentrated into days… two very peak days to be precise.

For outbound baggage, check-in counters were set up at the Olympic Village. Check-in at the Village was strongly recommended, since it would reduce considerably the process times at the airport. To ease the operation and flatten the peak, we had to get the baggage in the range of 20-30 hours prior to STD for each flight. The response was quite positive. Handling agents and airlines were present at the Village check-in counters, where CUTE as well as the carriers’ DCS was available. The bags were tagged and passengers received their boarding passes. Beside the normal IATA standard bag tag, an internal tag was produced and attached to the bag for pre-sorting at the express facility. All flights were internally divided into time zones depending on their departure time and sorted accordingly.

Baggage checked in at the Olympic Village was delivered by a fleet of 30 trucks about 24 hours prior to flight departure. It was pre-sorted at the express facility and segregated first by time zones of the departure times and later by flight codes before it was passed through the hold baggage screening equipment. After screening, the baggage was delivered to the make-up area and loaded onto ULDs by the relevant handling agents.

The whole process was calculated backwards. By checking the departure time of each flight carrying Olympic family members and deciding when the bags for each flight had to be screened and processed gave the check-in period required. The Olympic Teams were informed of the check-in timeframe and the ‘Chef de Mission’ of each team confirmed their appearance, approximately providing the numbers of passengers and bags. The passengers were bussed from the Olympic Village to the express facility around 1-2 hours before STD of their flights. They either proceeded to the check-in counters or, if their baggage had already been processed, immediately proceeded to the passenger screening and the airport retail or gate lounges.

On the peak departure days the express facility proved invaluable, especially on August 30th 2004, the day after the Games’ closing ceremony. Without its support, the load on the BHS and the terminal would have exceeded the available capacity during much of the day. By taking as much baggage as early as possible, we managed to flatten this peak and distribute the amount of departing bags from the high peaks to the less busy hours where we had capacity available.

The holding area

However, another side effect was storing the baggage handled 24 hours prior to departure time. Baggage was held in containers and on baggage bulk carts on airside under security. The containers were normally loaded onto container dollies for transport. These dollies were not unlimited in number; handling agents would run out of them if they had to be used for 24 hours or longer. So the problem was how to get the containers off the dollies for storage to free the dollies for further operation. The solution was the container holding area at the airport’s apron.

The dollies were transported to the holding area, where the containers were pushed off the dollies using a special rack. Forklifts then lifted the containers off the racks and onto wooden pallets. The rack, usually used for the storage of empty containers, had to be modified to allow a forklift to lift the containers. The effort and money spent modifying the racks was minimal and the dollies were freed for further use. Thus, a whole container town was created, storing the Olympic baggage airside. The airport company provided the resources and the logistical control by recording every unit delivered and monitoring that each container was retrieved from the area prior to flight departure. On the peak day, more than 800 containers were stored in the holding area ready to be loaded direct to aircraft.

Bulky baggage was a further problem. In order to cope with the additional OOG demand we added two more OOG check-in counters in the terminal and utilised two available cargo lifts. These lifts were normally used for supplies of the shops and restaurants at the airport. We activated them for OOG flow into the baggage halls in addition to the two large OOG conveyors we have by default. Also, two of the previously mentioned additional X-ray units were out-of-gauge machines, which we operated just outside the cargo lifts so the 100% screening policy could be kept for such baggage as well.

A success story

During the entire departure peak, no bags were short shipped, mis-sorted or loaded onto wrong flights. In addition to this there was no reported delay to aircraft departure because of baggage handling. This outcome was beyond all our expectations and it was an incredible achievement for which I give my staff credit. During the Olympic Games, the airport’s BHS personnel alone worked a total of 20,400 overtime hours.

The outbound baggage load was spread throughout the days of the Olympic Games with the peaks occurring more or less at the same time as usual, but with increased load on the systems. All this changed on the day of the Games closing ceremony when the load figures on the BHS exploded and all systems were loaded to the maximum for almost three complete days. A total of almost 360,000 Olympic bags were handled; 66,000 alone on the peak departure day compared to a BHS capacity of 45,000 per day. 49,000 bags were pre-checked in at the Olympic Village and 92,000 bags were processed via the Express Facility.

Although the baggage challenges during the Paralympics were less due to less athletes and officials, the baggage count per head was even greater and required close attention. We employed the lessons we had just learnt from the Olympic Games.

When you plan a major event like the Olympics, many issues are important but in the end it’s really all about baggage. Olympic passengers carry an average of 3.2 bags per PAX and you must get control of these bags as early as possible. Processing the same passengers through check-in at the airport without their baggage, is much easier. Passenger flows can be re-directed and check-in processes accelerated. It is the sorting and the mandatory hold baggage security measures that you should then concentrate on.

Lessons learned from the operation are that there should be a contingency plan for everything and that preparation for unexpected challenges is necessary. Every system needs contingency, every procedure needs fallback and, where this is not possible, have the right person for rectification waiting right at the relevant system with his hands on.

Only if the baggage is under control and handled smoothly and efficiently, can all of the traffic be handled successfully. Controlling the baggage means going outside the airport boundary to where the key passenger groups are located, such as the Olympic and Paralympic Village. Although some may say that I am biased, Olympic success in 2004 was all about baggage.

Michael Rumpf

Michael Rumpf has worked at AIA since August 1999, and is a specialist in the design, construction and operation of baggage handling systems. This includes 100% HBS (hold baggage screening) and manual hold baggage handling and screening. Previous career highlights include working as a consultant for Fraport. His career has covered design, construction management, financial control, administration and operations management for international airports with an annual passenger capacity of up to 50 million.

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