Boris Minnaert, IT Architect with the Aviation Competence Center (ACC) at IBM, explains why governance is needed to help improve baggage handling.
Mishandled bags are a billion dollar problem for the air transport industry (ATI) every year and it affects more than a million passengers every month.
All parties involved work hard to optimize their activities, yet bags are still mishandled. Given the size of this problem and that it has been around for years, drastic action will be required in order to make real improvements.
Familiar stories about lost baggage have given handling a very poor reputation. It’s even become the stuff of mockery… stand-up comedian Rhod Gilbert, delivers a hilarious routine based on mishandled bags. If you haven’t seen it, try typing his name in on the YouTube website. If you are in the baggage handling industry it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry as you watch it!
To improve efficiency, a mind shift is needed; we need to work smarter rather than harder.
Why are our well-known problems so difficult to solve? One of the reasons becomes apparent if we look at the baggage handling process and the responsibilities it entails. Generally speaking, though variations exist, multiple parties are involved including the airline, baggage handlers and airport authority. Now here’s a key observation. Of course all parties optimize their activities, but no one owns the end-to-end process. Sub optimization is inevitable and bags are mishandled as a result.
How will airport and airline staff notice that a particular bag or group of bags is in danger of being mishandled? How do they notice, and more importantly, will they notice while there is still time to do something about it? What kind of monitoring takes place?
Is monitoring the electro-mechanical system enough?
Traditionally, monitoring essential involves focusing on the electro-mechanical baggage transport system (BTS). Process operators in the baggage control room (BCR) can observe the BTS using supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) equipment and CCTV. SCADA will show equipment malfunctions and diebacks. It is of course important to monitor and act upon those types of problems, but is it enough?
The quality of electro-mechanical equipment has increased markedly over the years. When building new baggage terminals, requirements demand that there will be less than one in 10,000 mis-sorts, and at some airports, it is even required that there’ll be as few as one in 100,000 mis-sorts.
At many airports, the Irregularity Rate (commonly referred to as the IR), which measures the occurrence of baggage irregularities, is primarily determined by problems outside of the BTS.
And even if there are no equipment malfunctions or diebacks inside the BTS, bags are still mishandled quite frequently.
Let’s consider the following examples and ask ourselves the question: “How often would staff notice this situation in time for them to do something about it?”
- Bags for an outbound flight are processed too slowly at the make-up stage and may not arrive at the aircraft in time.
- Interline transfer bags from a delayed inbound flight don’t make it in time. They can only make their connection as a tail-to-tail item. (A transfer baggage item is deemed tail-to-tail or T2T when the remaining time between the actual arrival of its inbound flight and departure of its outbound flight is insufficient for normal processing.)
- Variations in luggage flows from check-in and transfer will cause an unexpected peak load in the BTS, resulting in delays.
The answer is that they wouldn’t notice in time if they relied on equipment monitoring.
Monitoring the process from on-blocks to off-blocks
In order to improve the efficiency of the process, the ATI has to broaden its focus on monitoring to include adjacent set ups. Instead of monitoring just the BTS, users must take into account the entire baggage handling process from end to end, from on blocks to off blocks. All users must visualize the bag’s entire journey and look beyond the carousel.
Alongside simply monitoring the BTS, process operators should start monitoring individual and groups of bags based on their typical attributes, such as the scheduled departure time of the appropriate outbound flight and screening status. They should start looking at the progress of process steps too and, when necessary, take preventative action well in advance. Instead of asking: “how is the sorter doing?” process operators should start asking themselves “Are we making good progress on loading the outbound flights?” This will enable them to focus on ‘problem’ flights or connections and do this while they still have time to take any necessary preventive actions. Process monitoring is also known as governance. It allows process operators to minimise the number of transfer bags that might go missing from a flight; anticipate capacity problems well in advance and – if they do occur – provide the operators with better information on how to deal with them.
Improving bag visibility
Governance requires sufficient tracking points, inside and outside of the BTS. In some older set-ups, only a very limited number of tracking points are used, and then only inside the BTS. As a result, it is difficult to trace the path of the bag through the system in detail and analyze what has actually happened to it. It is also impossible to trace who did what to the bag outside the BTS.
In short, these older systems have poor bag visibility. Just as good photographs need a certain number of pixels to create a sharp image, so it is with baggage handling systems, you need sufficient tracking points to get good bag visibility.
There are many ways to add new tracking points to an existing set-up. This can be done by using photo cells, barcodes, RFID, or any other sensor technology, so long as they are in the right spots and provide accurate information.
Sometimes the tracking points are available within the existing system internally and just need to be utilised by sending a signal to a monitoring tool. This delivers business benefits, such as improved bag visibility, while the elements of effort and risk are contained.
In other systems though, new sensors will need to be integrated. In addition to providing more tracking points, these extra sensors can be used to add new intelligence to the sorting process, like dynamic routing.
The process of adapting baggage routing in real-time is based on planning, real-time equipment availability information and configurable additional screening rules for special baggage types. This will improve the system’s utilization; give it the flexibility to respond to disruptions and new security screening needs.
Adding an RFID system next to an existing one is a cost effective way to add more tracking points. The existing system is still used for planning and routing, so degradation is impossible, while the RFID equipment handles bag tracking, governance, and analytics. Again, this brings improved bag visibility while the effort and risk levels are contained.
Outside the BTS, tracking points can be added by using Hand Held Terminals (HHTs) to scan bags when loading or unloading them from a ULD or aircraft. Secondary flow bags, such as odd-shaped, out-of-gauge, or tail-to-tail, etc, can also be tracked this way, along with the identity of the handler responsible. The HHT method is similar to the RFID example mentioned previously in that, while the existing system handles planning and routing inside the BTS, thereby preventing any degradation, the HHT set-up takes care of bag tracking outside the BTS. It can even deal with routing secondary flows bags and improving baggage reconciliation, again, without significantly increasing effort and risk levels.
Having bag visibility across the entire supply chain from on blocks to off blocks offers an integrated view of the baggage handling process, as well as enabling decision making and process improvements where bags tend to be mishandled. Technology like RFID is an additional enabler but not, in my opinion, the Holy Grail.
Bag visibility – a key enabler
Why is bag visibility so important? Improving bag visibility is a key enabler for new insights, and process innovation. It will enable in-depth analysis of the causes behind mishandled bags, while giving an assessment of the strong and weak points in the process. It will highlight the statistics regarding a system’s performance and usage that enables its data to be used in the routine discussions that take place between airlines and airports. This lets the statistics tell the story. The quantitative nature of the assessment will enable priorities to be set, a sound business case to be created for future system improvements and, ultimately, cost savings to be made.
All airports and airlines want to reduce the number of mishandled bags, but many have difficulty in defining a sound business case in terms of how best to achieve it. They can quantify the costs, but they can’t quantify the benefits, because they don’t have the necessary statistics.
Baggage team leaders use daily and weekly reports to monitor their group’s performance, and airports and airlines routinely use similar data to analyze past performance, or to evaluate the impact of process improvements. Therefore, increasing governance and bag visibility will drive operational excellence and continuous improvement.
While governance is an important step towards improving baggage handling it is, of course, not the only thing that needs to be done.
Airlines and airports should work together and share information in a timely manner. At some facilities, process operators from the major carrier and the airport itself are located in a shared centralized baggage control room. This facilitates fast communications and boosts team work. At some of these airports, a shared airport-wide information system is used, showing a consolidated view on flights, bags and ULDs from many airline, airport and handler systems. Because these groups all need to work with the same information, with a common language and common definitions, process operators can do the right thing: spend time on anticipating problems, setting priorities and taking preventative actions.