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Let the Games begin

Posted: 29 March 2012 | Michael Rumpf, Senior Project Consultant, Baggage Operations at Munich Airport Consulting | No comments yet

Handling the traffic of an Olympic Games is a challenge for airports. Not only the volume but also the nature and the special needs of Olympic passengers pose problems for airports and call for special operational procedures to be set up. Having had experience of overseeing the baggage of teams and visitors during the 2004 Olympic Games at Athens’ Eleftherios Venizelos Airport and the 2010 Commonwealth Games at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Airport, I am aware of the challenges that London’s airports will have to deal with.

The biggest problem with the Olympic Games are the unbelievable peaks just before the Games are officially declared open and after the closing ceremony. While the inbound traffic is stretched out over the weeks before the games open, it is as though everybody waits for the closing ceremony to finish and then want to fly out immediately afterwards. This stretches the airport’s facilities and systems to their limits, especially considering the higher number of bagsper- passenger ratio during the Olympics. But it is also a chance for airports to prove their ability for pre-planning and handling such events smoothly.

The airport is not the centre of the Games but it is usually the first and last point for Olympic visitors. For Heathrow Airport especially, where passengers still associate it with the baggage fiasco that occurred at the opening of T5, it will now be the unique opportunity to prove to the world how efficient the airport terminal has become.

Handling the traffic of an Olympic Games is a challenge for airports. Not only the volume but also the nature and the special needs of Olympic passengers pose problems for airports and call for special operational procedures to be set up. Having had experience of overseeing the baggage of teams and visitors during the 2004 Olympic Games at Athens’ Eleftherios Venizelos Airport and the 2010 Commonwealth Games at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Airport, I am aware of the challenges that London’s airports will have to deal with.The biggest problem with the Olympic Games are the unbelievable peaks just before the Games are officially declared open and after the closing ceremony. While the inbound traffic is stretched out over the weeks before the games open, it is as though everybody waits for the closing ceremony to finish and then want to fly out immediately afterwards. This stretches the airport’s facilities and systems to their limits, especially considering the higher number of bagsper- passenger ratio during the Olympics. But it is also a chance for airports to prove their ability for pre-planning and handling such events smoothly.The airport is not the centre of the Games but it is usually the first and last point for Olympic visitors. For Heathrow Airport especially, where passengers still associate it with the baggage fiasco that occurred at the opening of T5, it will now be the unique opportunity to prove to the world how efficient the airport terminal has become.

Handling the traffic of an Olympic Games is a challenge for airports. Not only the volume but also the nature and the special needs of Olympic passengers pose problems for airports and call for special operational procedures to be set up. Having had experience of overseeing the baggage of teams and visitors during the 2004 Olympic Games at Athens’ Eleftherios Venizelos Airport and the 2010 Commonwealth Games at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Airport, I am aware of the challenges that London’s airports will have to deal with.

The biggest problem with the Olympic Games are the unbelievable peaks just before the Games are officially declared open and after the closing ceremony. While the inbound traffic is stretched out over the weeks before the games open, it is as though everybody waits for the closing ceremony to finish and then want to fly out immediately afterwards. This stretches the airport’s facilities and systems to their limits, especially considering the higher number of bagsper- passenger ratio during the Olympics. But it is also a chance for airports to prove their ability for pre-planning and handling such events smoothly.

The airport is not the centre of the Games but it is usually the first and last point for Olympic visitors. For Heathrow Airport especially, where passengers still associate it with the baggage fiasco that occurred at the opening of T5, it will now be the unique opportunity to prove to the world how efficient the airport terminal has become.

While the increase in traffic and passengers due to the Olympic Games will only account for around eight per cent of the airport’s traffic, it is the huge public interest that makes the airport operation so critical.

The preparations begin more than one year before the Games open by ‘chasing’ information. I found it extremely helpful to talk to the most recent host airports; in our case Sydney and Barcelona. The Sydney staff were especially helpful as they were nice enough not only to share their experience, but to openly allow us to learn from their mistakes.

Frequent exchanges with the ‘Chefs de Mission’ of the participating teams, the National Olympic Committees as well as the Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games also paid off. Constant exchange with the airlines, handling agents and tour operators of the various teams and the Olympic family, gave us the information we needed to form the big picture, which was that the capacity of our baggage handling system facilities was sufficient if seen over a 24-hour period, but not for the expected hourly peaks. In addition, the systems would have been stretched to capacity levels over a longer period of time than ever before. The key to the success was very clear: we needed to be in control of the times when departing baggage and passengers arrive at the airport. But how could we achieve this?

The inbound wave

The inbound wave required good flow management that expedited the passengers through the terminal building along with speedy arrival baggage removal and a forwarding programme. We removed the bags from the reclaim carousels and positioned them outside the terminal at designated areas in case it took too long for the teams and visitors to claim their bags. To put this into a perspective; imagine if the Chinese team and delegation arrived on a 747 followed by a second 747 loaded with their equipment and food. It is fair to say that we had our hands full.

With more than 200 nations arriving in Athens, each with similar issues but unique requirements, it would not have been possible if we had not had such information beforehand and were able to plan and pro-actively cater for additional staff. One has to understand the nature of an arriving team. While normal passengers proceed as individuals to the exit points after claiming their bags, a team will linger and not move until the last member of the group has been fully served with bags, accreditation, refreshment and a subsequent toilet break. So the secret is to allow them to gather in areas not urgently required for operational throughput.

The outbound plan

This part of the process had to be more sophisticated and these unusual times called for unusual measures. It was clear that if we were to simply expect the Olympic traffic as per schedule we would, at one point, run out of terminal and check-in capacity. Hold baggage and passenger screening would be insufficient and we would not recover from the accumulated passenger queues and peak time baggage die-backs. So we went to the source: the Olympic village. Five check-in zones were established, fully fitted with bag tag and boarding pass printers and a network.

Athletes and members of the Olympic family were encouraged to check-in some 36 hours prior to their scheduled flight departure. Some did not want to part with their bags that early, others did not mind and some of them were willing to give us, say, two of their three bags, for example. The benefit for the athletes was that they would get a boarding pass and a swift process through the Express Terminal, which was especially mocked up for this purpose. The athletes could go through screening and boarding without check-in, which motivated the majority of the Olympic teams to choose this option. Equipped with additional baggage and passenger screening equipment on loan from the TSA and Smiths Heimann, and having the bags in our possession more than 30 hours before departure, we had all the time we needed to properly screen, sort and dispatch them, thus flattening out the peak completely.

The trick worked, even though the baggage volumes exploded the day after the Olympic closing ceremony and stretched all systems to their capacity over a period of 72 hours. We could divert traffic from our main terminal and baggage handling system (BHS). We could hold baggage and whenever the BHS was not fully utilised we would then feed additional bags into it. If the BHS was under load we would process bags via the Express Terminal mock-up. By doing this we gained control of the baggage flow.

Passengers, general traffic, visitors, Olympic family, athletes; we can cope with all these in several ways and options are usually available at airport terminals to divert here or cater for more capacity there. Special signage helps too; we had Olympic footprints pasted on to the terminal floor, for example. Holding and service areas can also be created. And special rules for check-in usage and a proactive queue management help for a seamless movement of passengers through the terminal. However, with the stringent requirements and regulations for baggage there are not too many options available, and screening is not something that can be easily modified or amended in an ad-hoc manner. The special baggage procedures applied enabled the airport to handle 137 per cent of its BHS’s capacity during the peak hour. Therefore the key to a successful Olympic Games related operation is to gain full control of the baggage. I think it is fair to say if you are in control of the bags, you are in control of the Olympics.

During the Olympic Games an airport will receive unusual types of baggage and in unusually high volumes. Poles from the pole vault competition are over five metres long and challenge not only BHSs but also out-of-gauge baggage lifts and even stairs. During the Games the airport will see more than one of these, with the athletes being worried about the careful handling of their equipment. This type of luggage needs to be catered for and my recommendation is to trial the processes prior to the Games. If the manual baggage handlers have never transported a pack of pole vault poles through the terminal it is not a good idea to do it for the first time while the athlete is watching. This applies to many aspects of the Olympic operation. All of these special procedures have to be practiced to ensure their feasibility and have their effectiveness tested in operational trials way before the first Olympic guests set foot in the terminal.

Expect the unexpected

When running such a tight operation at capacity limits over a long period of time, the slightest error could cause a collapse of the entire airport operation. A simple malfunction of a belt, a server outage or a lift break-down may cause queues and die-backs that cannot be recovered and paralyse the airport within minutes. Every system needs to have a contingency; every procedure needs a fall back plan. For vital systems the fastest possible response maintenance has to be catered for. Specialist Technicians and Field Service Engineers need to be on site, positioned next to the servers, the PLCs and similar backbone systems ready to react in a hands-on manner to any unforeseen incident. On the operational side there will also be surprises in store for the airport.

On 24 August 2004, five days before the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games, a simultaneous attack on two Russian domestic passenger aircraft took place. This resulted in the entire Russian delegation, including athletes, officials, visitors and tourists, withdrawing from the pre-agreed handling procedures and having to undergo heightened-security procedures instead. All their bags had to be Level 3 screened. This was a major change that was not easy to accomplish in the middle of the Olympic departure peak. The US delegation of the Paralympic Games finally loaded with all people and kit on-board a 747 and ready to depart, then had a technical failure that prevented the aircraft from leaving. Consequently, the passengers, bags and cargo all had to be unloaded and processed again, including screening and security protocol. A special challenge was contributed by the Cuban Olympic team: En route to the airport they made a brief stop at a nearby electronics shop and bought themselves some new household appliances! Imagine some 180 passengers at the check-in counters and in addition to their baggage and sports equipment each of them had a refrigerator or a washing machine or a large television set; and that without any prior notice. But we were prepared, which is another example of how important it is to exchange experiences with previous host airports.

Olympic spirit

The Olympic Games are about records and top performances. Handling Olympic traffic at the airport is no different. Preparation, planning and training far in advance of the event is a must, and you do your best to deliver a top performance on the day. It is a team effort and the world is watching during your performance. You need to get your team into this spirit. The demands on airport staff will be very high at all levels and through all departments. To pay out-ofhours overtime and other staff benefits is one thing, but to cope with the extraordinary challenge of handling the masses of people and volumes of baggage, to make the airport team go the extra mile and to do it all with a smile; that requires true Olympic spirit.

In its role as the first and last contact point on behalf of the host nation for the Olympic visitors, the airport plays a very special role. Of course, airports make this a special event and treat their Olympic visitors especially well. But without a sound operation all this is worthless. Airports may hand over flowers to their passengers and be creative in the ways the visitors are hosted and handled, but if a passenger loses their bags, or has to queue endlessly for a delayed flight, this may all turn counterproductive. So it all needs to be supported with a sound operational plan, a thorough capacity and load calculation and a proper back-up to deal with unexpected events and failures. Only then can medals be won by airports too.

 

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 44-year-old German has worked in several parts of the world imple – menting 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 2010. Michael is currently working with Munich Airport’s International Consulting Business in the Oman for the operational readiness of Muscat’s and Salalah’s new airport projects in the Sultanate and consults for Kiev’s Boryspil International Airport supporting the implementation of a new baggage handling system and the airport operation concerning handling the traffic of the Euro 2012 football tournament.

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