In the space of ten years, technology has revolutionised the way airports think about baggage handling systems, with many turning their back on low-tech traditional check-in desks to adopt sophisticated automated self-service systems. Yet, each year, mishandled or lost luggage continues to cost the industry billions of dollars.

While technology will certainly help address this issue, it will never entirely solve it. Airports worldwide come in all shapes and sizes and therefore face their own unique challenges when it comes to delivering a successful baggage handling system.

Here, Alex Hawkes talks to two leading industry experts about new measures or technologies available to help airports refine their baggage handling processes and prevent the occurrence of lost or mishandled baggage.

Perspective 1: the International Air Transport Association (IATA)

Alex Hawkes: According to many industry insiders, IATA’s baggage improvement programme has given fresh incentive to airports worldwide to improve their baggage handling systems. How exactly have you gone about doing this?

“IATA’s baggage improvement programme was launched two years ago and aims to halve the number of mishandled baggage each year.”

Steven Lott, head of communications, IATA: The baggage improvement programme was launched two years ago and aims to halve the number of mishandled baggage each year. Airlines deliver baggage on time to passengers 98% of the time, but that remaining 2% is still a frustration for passengers and costs the industry approximately $3bn a year.

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IATA conducted a passenger survey in 2009 and, after the on-time departure and arrival of flights, the on-time arrival of baggage is the second most important travel factor for passengers.

Baggage mishandling is down significantly and airlines have done a lot to improve on figures in recent years, but the bottom line is that passengers do not like losing bags and it still adds a significant cost to the industry.

AH: So what are some of the ways in which IATA has helped airports reduce the number of mishandled or lost bags?

SL: IATA and a team of experts went to individual airports and provided an analysis for airlines, highlighting ways they could improve baggage handling processes. We also produced a self-help guide where airports could work through some simple measures that would improve baggage handling processes with airlines and ground handlers.

Some of these measures are potentially low-cost. For example, we found that check-in agents sometimes pile too much baggage together on the conveyor belt and as a result the lasers struggle to accurately read the tags. As a solution, IATA has suggested painting yellow or white lines on the conveyor belts that act as a visual clue for check-in agents on how to more accurately space bags.

AH: Which type of airport operations are more at risk of mishandling or losing baggage?

SL: 80 of the top airports account for 80% of the world’s mishandled baggage. Larger airports naturally have more problems due to the frequency of connecting flights, which typically have the highest risk of mishandling or losing baggage.

The problem, however, is the airport of origin, which can often be smaller airports that do not have dedicated terminals for airlines. Instead all bags pass through a common use system and there is a higher risk of them not being placed on the right flight. At smaller airports it is mainly training and processes as opposed to technology and infrastructure that really counts, which is where IATA’s self-help toolkit can help.

“Baggage mishandling is down significantly and airlines have done a lot to improve on figures in recent years.”

AH: Finally, what goals remain for the baggage improvement programme?

IATA’s goal for the rest of this year is to make another 15 diagnosis visits to airports and launch a self-help programme for an additional 20 airports. The more visits we make to airports, the more we see reoccurring themes and problems that we can address in our self-help toolkit. We are therefore gaining momentum with the self-help toolkit and believe that it will become an increasingly important resource for both large hubs and smaller airports worldwide.

Perspective 2: SITA

AH: Statistics show mishandled or lost baggage rates have fallen in recent years, why do you believe that is the case?

Nick Gates, airport solution line, SITA: Every year, SITA publishes its baggage report, which has a number of interesting statistics about delayed and mishandled bags. Two years ago, delayed or mishandled bags were costing airports about $3.8bn a year but recently this figure has dropped to $2.5bn.

There are a number of reasons behind this drop. Firstly, fewer passengers have been travelling in recent years, which means fewer bags. Additionally, some airlines have begun charging passengers for carrying bags, which has resulted in them carrying less baggage.

After years of investment, we are also beginning to see the effects of automation at many airports around the world, which gives them a more sophisticated approach to handling baggage. Another influencing factor is IATA’s Baggage Improvement Baggage which is helping airports and airlines worldwide identify problem areas.

AH: Do you believe this positive trend will continue?

NG: Already the statistics SITA has received from World Tracer – a SITA / IATA automated service for tracking lost or delayed baggage – show the industry is starting to see a small increase in mishandled or lost luggage in 2010.

This is inevitably due to the number of passengers travelling increasing again. It will be interesting to see how the industry reacts to this over the coming year.

“The industry will never completely solve the issue of mishandled or lost baggage as it requires human intervention.”

AH: Has technology proved to be the best way of combating increasing mishandling rates?

NG: Technology will always be a useful resource for providing information but it requires people to act on that information. The industry will never completely solve the issue of mishandled or lost baggage as it requires human intervention – all we can do is reduce the mishandling rate to as little as possible.

The adoption of technology is growing though, and systems that track or locate bags either by barcode or RFID readers are becoming cheaper and easier to install. This means more airports have real-time monitoring systems that show where the bags are and which ones have gone missing.

AH: Presumably larger airports and hubs are in the front line to adopt this sort of technology first?

NG: If an airport has multiple terminals and a large number of air bridges, it inevitably requires an inherently complex baggage handling system. Problems are more likely to occur when transfer passengers are involved and systems need to do cleverer things to compensate for this.

When an airline provides a transfer, it is essential the ground handlers are made fully aware of the status of the bags. SITA has often encountered situations where ground handlers have no advanced warning about the baggage loads for each aircraft, something that can be so easily rectified by existing technologies.

AH: And how does this differ to the situation at smaller airports?

NG: Smaller airports typically do not have to worry about transfer baggage and the main focus is simply the origin and destination. They are therefore not interested in the level of sophistication that SITA can offer bigger airports, but remain keen to accurately monitor which bags are correctly loaded on to departing flights.

AH: Finally, what is the biggest challenge facing the airport sector in its bid to improve baggage handling processes worldwide?

NG: One of the biggest developments at airports in the last ten years is the adoption of self-service check-in. The next challenge, however, is to find a more efficient way of separating the bag from the passenger.

The world of self service is now very diverse – some airports, such as Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, have tried to introduce a complete self-service setup assisted by very sophisticated machines with electro-mechanical components, lasers and weighing devices. This is now the utopian set-up for airports worldwide, but the majority still rely on low-tech traditional check-in desks.

Automation is no doubt the future of the industry, but the equipment can be expensive and the return in investment takes between five and ten years. The question is whether or not airlines choose to make that investment now or persist with semi-automated methods where assistants are needed to help passengers drop off their bags.

What the industry will hopefully experience over the next ten years is a migration from this semi-automated agent assisted baggage drop-off to a totally self-service setup.