Heathrow – Finally Ditching its Baggage?

26 March 2008 (Last Updated March 26th, 2008 18:30)

Will Heathrow's long awaited Terminal 5 finally clear BAA of its baggage woes? Al Elliott investigates its new technologies to find out.

After 18 years in development and £4.3b of planning and building, the Queen officially opened T5 on 14 March, with its first passengers travelling through on the 27 March.

BAA's flagship airport terminal has been heralded as one of the 'most breathtaking man-made spaces in modern Britain'. Willie Walsh, British Airways CEO, says that T5 'will change the way international travellers look at Britain and restore our principal airport to its rightful position as one of the world's best'. Big words, with even bigger expectations; a great deal is riding on T5.

"Travellers want the slickest, smoothest, pain-free journey possible."

There is no doubting its landmark credentials, with state-of-the-art technology and awesome use of design. As BAA and BA might put it, it's all about creating the ultimate customer experience. And they should know all about that.

Just turn the clock back a few weeks to terminal 4 – scenes of suitcases piled high and disgruntled passengers pulling their hair out after hour upon hour of delays while engineers struggle to repair the baggage-handling system that's broken down,
again.

The most inventive use of space and high-end design won't hide one thing – travellers want the slickest, smoothest, pain-free journey possible.

With a projected 30 million customers a year and 70,000 baggage items passing through each day, it was vital for T5 to have the necessary supportive infrastructure. Most importantly an innovative end-to-end baggage-handling solution, able to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.

Vanderlande Industries, a world leader in baggage-handling systems, was awarded the contract to develop and install the entire system – one of the most complex projects of its kind in terms of systems engineering, project management and process improvement.

TAILOR-MADE BAGGAGE-HANDLING SYSTEM FOR T5

From the early design concept stage, it was clear that this would be a challenging project. It might sound simple to transport a bag from one place to another, but in 2007 BA lost more than one million bags – a total higher than any other airline in Europe.

In practice a baggage-handling system needs to incorporate many functions: hold-baggage screening, automated identification and sortation systems, weighing equipment and high-speed DCV transportation systems.

Between bag entry at a check-in desk and bag delivery to a flight stand, there are multiple processes at work, all requiring their own software components and functions within the overarching baggage handling architecture.

"In practice a baggage-handling system needs to incorporate many functions."

140 check-in positions, including 96 fast-bag drop facilities. Over 18km of conveyor belt, controlled by 118 computers servers able to process 12,000 bags an hour. 8km of destination coded vehicles, including the fast-track system operating at 10m a second.

Right from the outset, the priority for Vanderlande Industries was the development of an integrated and intelligent planning and control system that would work seamlessly with baggage handling equipment in order to cope with all the demands peak-time travel would undoubtedly place on it.

MANAGING LOGISTICS

Working in an environment as large as T5 has its own inherent problems. During construction there were as many as 60 primary contractors working at one time, a total of 6,500 workers in a terminal the size of Hyde Park.

The baggage team itself was made up of 12 different disciplines, each dependent on each other for reaching scheduled completion dates. Multiple contractors, multiple software interfaces, multiple installations – all serving to multiply the risk to product delivery. Additionally, a project on the scale of T5 does not call for an off-the-shelf solution; a large proportion of the baggage handling system was specifically developed for the project.

To prevent a logistical nightmare and enable effective management on a day-to-day basis, the T5 management team used a project management tool developed by Primavera. With a project on the scale of T5 it was inevitable that the project's focus would change as time went by – Primavera helped manage the progress of the many sub-projects while steering the project along its overall critical path.

SYSTEMS TESTING

"Between bag entry at a check-in desk and bag delivery to a flight stand, there are multiple processes at work."

To further negate the risk to delivery on time and on budget, the system needed to be road tested to perfection. Through both the planning and installation phases, and then again for operational use.

During the design and development phase of the baggage handling system, AutoLogic System's AutoMod simulation software was used to perform dynamic simulation. Design and performance were replicated in order to test against every possible scenario, thereby minimising risk and maximising efficiency.

T5's baggage-handling system was completed in September 2007, and since then has undergone extensive testing in preparation for the grand opening.

HOW DOES THE BAGGAGE-HANDLING SYSTEM WORK?

The baggage system at T5 is unique, in that it runs from the check-in halls all the way to the airside aircraft stands. The transport system is largely underground and utilises Vanderlande's DCV (destination coded vehicles) technology to transport bags at speeds of up to 40km/h, considerably faster than traditional baggage-handling systems.

Baggage is routed through the system based on classifications of 'early', 'on-time' and 'time critical'. Early bags get sent using the TUBTRAX system to a fully automatic bag store that uses technology from the warehousing industry to take early bags out of circulation and prevent them clogging up the system.

On-time bags are delivered directly to the baggage hall, and time-critical luggage – such as transfer and late luggage – is fast tracked through the high-speed BAGTRAX system along railway-style tracks right to the departing flight's aircraft stand. Control software tracks each bag and can change timing classifications if flights are cancelled of delayed.

"T5's baggage-handling system has undergone extensive testing."

Senior project director for Vanderlande, Henk Van Helmond, said the innovative new design concept 'combines state-of-the-art baggage handling technology with many advanced operational features', a result of close collaboration between Vanderlande, BA and BAA.

With arrivals, the aspiration is that your luggage will be in baggage reclaim in just 15 minutes from the time your flight lands. As British Airways put it, baggage has never moved so fast.

SECURITY

If there is one aspect of travel that holds a permanent place in the public consciousness it is security – whether through fear of an actual terrorist threat itself or worries of huge delays because of intensive security checks. Of paramount importance for T5 is that the integrity of its security systems is not compromised by the flow of passenger traffic and baggage, and vice versa.

At T5, a security system has been embedded into the baggage-handling system that screens baggage using advanced computed tomography techniques. L-3 Communications, suppliers of the equipment, have integrated 21 of their MVT-HR X-ray screening systems and six eXaminer explosive detection systems in the baggage-handling system.

The MVT-HR can screen 1,800 bags an hour – the highest throughput available for explosives screening in the aviation industry. The eXaminer explosive detection system uses advanced 3D imaging capabilities to give an even closer look at those bags that raise questions.

RFID TECHNOLOGY FOR BAGGAGE TRACKING

It was initially thought that T5 would use radio frequency identification (RFID) technology for its baggage handling operations, but instead it was decided to go with tried-and-tested 3D barcodes. While RFID is an emergent technology and would be more robust, Jonathan Adams, BAA's head of IT programme management, explained that "RFID would only work if every other airport used the system as well."

"A large proportion of the baggage-handling system was specifically developed for the project."

However, that may not be too far away. In February 2008 a six-month trial was launched in terminal 3 in a joint project between BAA and Emirates for flights running between Heathrow and Dubai. During check-in staff apply tags with RFID chips that are tracked through the entire system.

If successful, RFID technology could result in faster check-in times and even be integrated with secure collection and delivery of luggage. But, reinforcing Adam's words, just 6% of airports currently use RFID and for it to take off more operators and carriers need to embrace the technology.

READY FOR TAKE-OFF

T5 is set to hit the ground running. In terms of its internal systems architecture, it has employed some of the most advanced technologies in the world. Fully integrated systems that actually talk to each other, housed within arguably one of the most exciting developments in the UK.

The customer experience should be one of extreme ease as you glide through check-in, take your seat on the plane and jet off to your destination. BA hopes that it will be 'a seamless and upgraded airport experience unlike any other in the world' that will 'put the enjoyment back into travelling'.

As for where Heathrow will go next, T5's third satellite, T5C, is scheduled for completion by 2010. And shortly after T5 opens, terminal 1 will close, terminal 2 will be demolished and rebuilt as Heathrow East, and terminal 3 will undergo extensive redesign and refurbishment. Expect Heathrow to have undergone a complete facelift by 2012.