Behind Baggage Handling

13 April 2011 (Last Updated April 13th, 2011 18:30)

As millions of items daily pass through baggage handling systems worldwide, technology has had to move fast to keep up. Frances Cook looks at how advancements in baggage handling technology are keeping up with exponential volumes and evolving security threats.

Behind Baggage Handling

Today's airports face a daunting task when it comes to baggage handling. They have to receive millions of visitors each year; manage peak and off peak passenger levels; connect passengers with other flights within minutes; adhere to health and safety requirements; keep all items secure; transport baggage from airport to aircraft quickly and keep track of millions of units of luggage.

Above and beyond all the logistics involved are also under huge pressure to keep down energy costs, which when applied to all facets of the chain is one of greatest of all airport operations. According to baggage handling specialist Crisplant sales manager Christoph Oftring, today's baggage handling is all about 'combining technology, making systems as flexible as possible and connecting areas of airports as much as possible in a decentralised system'.

Flexible systems

Oftring explains that today's airports need to be more flexible. "This is partly because there are low-cost airlines that require a different operation level, meaning that the technology and systems in place need to be able to cope with peak passenger and be more flexible.

"We need systems that can run quickly; faster connections between terminals and to combine different technologies for inter-terminal transport," he explains.

"Today's baggage handling is all about combining technology and making systems as flexible as possible."

For Oftring, Crisplant already has the technology at its fingertips to provide the required solutions, so it is not so much about improving the technology side of the systems any more. Effective solutions are found in the smart use of existing technology after the existing operations and systems at an airport are analysed.

"It is the handling needs that drive the technology and so we look at the processes and handling operations first," says Oftring. "Then we look at how we can combine the products."

Helsinki strategy

Helsinki Airport handles nearly 13 million passengers a year, with 300 departures to 120 non-stop destinations around the world every day. It is the leading long-haul airport in northern Europe.

The airport's growth over the last decade meant that redevelopment started back in 2009, which included the expansion of terminal 2 and the construction of a new baggage logistics centre (BLC).

One of Helsinki's main requirements was to implement a fast system, so it could offer minimum connection times, but one that could operate through low power consumption. Crisplant's tote-based CrisBag system rapidly moves bags from check-in to the BLC where they are transferred for security screening. It is at this point transfer bags are merged.

"The connection time at an airport, depending on its size, is between 30 and 45 minutes," says Oftring. "That 40 minutes has to include opening the aircraft, picking out containers, screening, sorting, loading again, and for the real baggage handling there's five maybe seven minutes left."

"Frankfurt Airport has incorporated a decentralised system for transporting its baggage."

A new transfer monitor tool, devised by Crisplant, allows for an overview of delayed incoming flights that are carrying baggage requiring transfer and a system alert means the airport can react in time and bags reach their connecting flights, even when time is limited.

The total length of the system is over 10km and can handle 7,000 bags an hour at peak times. Cleared bags are diverted to two LS-4000 sorters, which use linear synchronous motors instead of a standard linear motor to save up to 75% of energy use.

Additionally, the intelligent system means that belts run at full speed only where there is a tote approaching, making the overall belt system energy efficient.

Flexible handling in Frankfurt

While flexibility and combined technology is important, an important area of development for airports is to improve the connectivity and implement systems that support decentralisation. "This is happening at bigger airports already, for example in Frankfurt," says Oftring. "They use decentralised smaller systems that are connected to the main one so that not everything has to go back to a central point for sorting."

Frankfurt Airport, Europe's third largest, received over 53 million passengers in 2010 and its number of visitors is continuing to grow. With 3.87 million travellers through its doors in January 2011, the year started off with a 5.2% rise year-on-year. The airport's baggage handling system covers 70km of conveyor routes and on peak days more than 99,000 units of baggage can be transported safely and securely.

"Clearly, Frankfurt Airport holds a commanding lead as Germany's number one aviation gateway for passenger and cargo traffic," says Fraport AG's executive board chairman Dr Stefan Schulte, who goes on to state that the airport is heading into a new "dimension of growth".

"The challenge is to design a system that handles an increased number of bags each year, at lower costs."

In order to accommodate this growth going forward, the airport has incorporated a decentralised system for transporting its baggage. Among others, it uses Beumer equipment to meet its baggage handling requirements, which, includes a tote-based transport system and a sortation system that provides for baggage handling from check-in to the aircraft. Tens of thousands of totes circulate between the terminals via a tunnel network that allows the airport to effectively process peak high volume passenger traffic.

Schiphol's 70MB target

At Schiphol, Europe's fifth biggest airport, the current focus is on 70MB - that is how to handle 70 million bags a year, a figure that is soon to be reality.

Having received around 45 million visitors in 2010, this figure is growing and so now the challenge is to design a system that handles an increased number of bags each year, at lower costs, and using the same number of man hours with increased quality. At peak times more than 52,000 pieces of baggage are handled at Schiphol each day.

Vanderlande Industries and IBM are designing and building a system that will double current baggage handling capacity, tracking each bag using robot-handling software. The airport's integrated system already connects baggage control with check-in and flight arrival and departure information. "With this state-of-the-art baggage transport system, known as Backbone, we will be able to manage the future growing stream of passengers and baggage," says Mark Lakerfield, manager of baggage at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport.

The new system will help to further reduce drops in the number of delayed or misplaced bags and reduce operational costs. "This order not only physically connects all of Schiphol's handling areas, but also integrates the entire airport's baggage system control software," says Michiel Peters, president and CEO of Vanderlande Industries.