Behind the scenes of a baggage handling system

Posted: 11 April 2011 | Michael Rumpf, Senior Project Consultant, Baggage Operations at Muscat and Salalah airports, Oman | No comments yet

When planning for a new BHS (Baggage Handling System) I recommend looking at your bags as if they were customers. Similar to a study on passenger profiles for a new terminal, an analysis of bags should be done. The dimensions, typical shapes, materials, per Pax ratio, even content will get you important results that have to be taken into consideration for planning a new BHS.

80% of the typical Middle East checked baggage would be out-of-gauge in Europe, so it is important to get the average profile and per route specifics of your baggage to cater for sufficient baggage handling facilities.

When planning for a new BHS (Baggage Handling System) I recommend looking at your bags as if they were customers. Similar to a study on passenger profiles for a new terminal, an analysis of bags should be done. The dimensions, typical shapes, materials, per Pax ratio, even content will get you important results that have to be taken into consideration for planning a new BHS.

80% of the typical Middle East checked baggage would be out-of-gauge in Europe, so it is important to get the average profile and per route specifics of your baggage to cater for sufficient baggage handling facilities.

After this is done and paired with the volume of passenger and bags per anno and during the maximum peak hour the BHS can be planned according to the local needs considering the number of handling agents, the equipment used by them and the security screening and customs requirements. After this is brought to paper in a BHS layout, the baggage hall can be designed around it. But this is unfortunately not always the way it is done. Often, architects have just allocated a space in the terminal, which they thought should be sufficient for the baggage processing and makeup. That is why even new airports and terminals have to learn the bitter lesson that an insufficient BHS has the potential to paralyse the entire airport operation within minutes. The very first step is to get the planning right and cater for what you need in terms of baggage delivery performance rather than conveniently fitting it somewhere in the basement.

One key factor during the design and concept phase is redundancy. Every path in the BHS should have a diversion, every vital system integrated a back-up system and every standard operating procedure must have a fallback plan. Once this is catered for the training of the staff can begin. It is best to include the baggage handling personnel already during the testing and commissioning phase of the system so they learn the facilities and how to operate them at an early stage. This is however often not possible and takes a lot of convincing. Many contracts are structured in a way that the operator of the airport (and the BHS) has access to the systems (and the building) only after completion. BHS suppliers, civil aviation authorities or other state agencies are often the actual customers of the supply contracts and the airport operators, handling agents and airlines are out of the picture. This is – in my experience – a major mistake. Not only will this start the necessary familiarisation too late, these people will also have important contributions to make for a healthy operation even during the design and installation phase. It is always a good idea to get your stakeholders on board at any time of the implementation process.

The Airport Operator has to take control of the operation including baggage handling, which involves integration of your customer airlines, the handling agents, and the security screening operators, customs, police and the Civil Aviation Authority. How can all of these factors be integrated? The key is operational readiness trials. Brief all departments in one room, take them to the systems and ask them to operate under supervision and guidance. First party by party and then incorporate an interfacing party to the other and finally all together as one unit. This process usually happens during a time when an airport or a terminal is already operating and these trials are on top of these personnel’s other duties and often outside their regular working hours. The so-called ORAT (operational readiness and airport transfer) is a science in itself and is of the highest importance and key contributor to the successful opening of any airport. Today entire Departments occupy themselves with the organisation of ORAT. Organisations like Munich Airport sell their expertise and know-how in providing operational readiness.

A modern baggage handling system with all its complexity and electro-mechanical technology is much more than a mere accumulation of conveyors with a carousel or a pier at the end, and much more than screwdrivers and pliers to keep it maintained. First of all the conveyors are not just conveyors; they come straight, curved, inclined, declined, swiveling and metering. They come as luffing conveyors or vertical sort units, high speed plows or merge conveyors. They often have drive-stations instead of just motors and are equipped with variable frequency drives and eco devices monitoring and regulating power consumption. They feed into automated x-ray systems and take security decisions according to these x-rays or its operators and sort according to these decisions. They can read bag tag barcodes and radio-frequency tags and will satisfy customs requirements and cater for security regulations of several governments like TSA screening protocols. They are PLC controlled and ethernet connected carry sensors and have the ability to track bags.

However, to keep this huge accumulation of steel, rubber and electronics running the golden rule is simple; sort bags accurately, securely and in a timely manner. Checked baggage has to be processed to the correct flight make-up and swiftly enough to be loaded onto the aircraft before the departure time. Each bag has to pass through a multi-level automated screening system consisting of explosives detection systems; tomography x-rays and trace detection systems. Often enough, customs will also like to know the content of bags on certain routes so that the screening has to satisfy two entirely different requirements.

Whether the operation of a BHS is entirely outsourced or done by the airport or via a hybrid model, it takes a dedicated team of experts to keep it running and maintained. An availability of above 99% for electromechanical applications and 99.9% for servers is the standard within the industry and it takes a lot of foresight to achieve this. Every part is measured in ‘mean time before failure’ and ideally is replaced before this time expires within a pre-allocated time window, the ‘mean time to repair’, which is matched with the operation to schedule it at an ideal meaning, off-peak, moment. So on one hand, you will know when a part will fail and when it has to be replaced, and on the other hand, know how long that replacement will take. This sounds simple but with several kilometers of conveying lines, dozens of x-ray systems, thousands of motors and complicated electromechanical equipment it is quite a challenge. Here a professional contractor can help, best paired with manufacturer knowledge, which is why baggage handling systems are often purchased with a service contract for the first years. This covers however only the engineering part of the BHS.

To me BHS engineering is a service provider and BHS operations is its client. The BHS maintenance team keeps the ‘tool sharp’ for operations to work with. Often enough technical staff running a baggage operation can suffer from a potential conflict of interest. Their priority is to get the system back up and running again but the airport’s first priority should always be that the bags make it on time and fly. Endeavors to repair usually start with fault finding and that is often a trial and error approach during which bags stranded on conveyors or sorters are not processed. Clearly these bags have to get out first and all lines to be cleared before any trouble shooting can start, but it is a fine line. If it is only a matter of minutes one might try to repair over immediate manual bag removal. This decision however, should be taken with an operational conscience rather than from an engineering perspective.

It is not only maintenance that has to be planned. Operations will require careful planning and scheduling as well. One of the key members of any serious baggage operation is the analyst and the analyst’s statistics. The list of statistics can be endless and provides valuable insight on how to pre-plan the baggage operation and what exactly to plan for. In the ideal case there is a baggage supervisor who wears the operational hat, in charge of the entire baggage operation including engineering. For large terminals the task can be split into several supervisors per area, for example departure baggage make-up area and arrival baggage area.

This duty supervisor co-ordinates all parties starting from the airline personnel at the checkin, the handling agents in the baggage handling areas and the screening operators who might be a private security operator licensed by the government or government employees or even police officers. Customs officers, terminal operations, even airside operations need to be in constant close liaison with the baggage team.

Besides a rather small administration team, a baggage handling department requires mainly shift personnel. While the Engineer will watch the system via a CCTV and operate it via a supervisory control system, the operational aspects are covered by a colleague who will watch over the scheduling and allocation of the baggage handling system’s resources. Manual coding operators will take care of bags that cannot be read by the automated scanners and direct them to the correct flight make-up. Bags that cannot be sorted automatically for whatever reason will be directed to a special output point of the BHS where baggage handlers will process them to the right airline. Bag jams are a frequent occurrence since all endeavors to standardise bags with the main manufacturers have been futile in the past. A ‘bag jam’ team strategically covering the entire BHS will take care of such issues and either remove them or get the bag on the way with a gentle push.

Nowadays, HBS (hold baggage screening) security is an integral part of the BHS. The known straight-forward ‘level 1 to 5’ screening system has evolved into a system consisting of several levels in between. What was a ‘level 4 alarm’ before has now become either a ‘level 4 threat alarm’, or a ‘level 4 no-threat alarm’ or a ‘level 4 customs alarm’ or similar. The precise set-up differs from airport to airport but has certainly become more complex over the past few years.

There are usually several agencies involved for passenger, baggage and ramp handling which are all important interfaces for the baggage operation. It is not uncommon that for one flight make-up the baggage division has to deal with the airline representative, check-in, security and the baggage reconciliation and yet another agency in charge of bagagge handling and transport.

The IT of a baggage handling system can also be rather complex. Servers controlling the routing and tracking of bags that communicate to programmable logic controllers are receiving baggage sort messages from all over the globe, dispatching baggage process messages after succesful sorting and are utilising their own network for communication and CCTV monitoring.

The team of engineers for a BHS consists besides the control room operators of electronics specialists, mechanical engineers, PLC experts, network specialist and numerous technicians with special qualification and skills. It is this mix of many parties and the accumulation of high end technologies and limited time factor that ultimately requires the huge logistical that creates a succesful and smooth baggage handling operation.

About the Author

Michael Rumpf is a Baggage Handling Expert with vast experience in automated baggage handling systems, hold baggage screening and running baggage operations. The 43-year old German has worked in several parts of the world implementing new baggage handling systems and setting up, as well as managing baggage handling departments for airports. His recent work has covered the major New Delhi International Terminal 3 that opened in July last year. Michael is currently working in the Oman for the operational readiness of Muscat’s and Salalah’s new airport projects in the Sultanate.

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