Crisplant’s Airport Systems Manager, Kim Madsen, explains how the company has helped Helsinki Airport to avoid delayed flights and disruptions to passenger flow.
Helsinki Airport opened in 1952 for the Helsinki Olympic Games and now, almost 50 years later, handles 15 million passengers a year and provides around 20,000 jobs. Measured by the number of destinations it serves – more than 120 non-stop destinations around the world and 300 departures a day – Helsinki is the leading long-haul airport in northern Europe.
The airport has achieved this position largely as a result of its geographical location, and the fact that many airlines use it as a hub for flights to the Far East. Its operator, Finavia, has taken advantage of this growth and turned Helsinki into a really modern facility that is widely recognised as one of the world’s best airports.
Major redevelopment began in 2009 with the expansion of Terminal 2, driven by Finavia’s aim to strengthen the position of the airport as a main hub, and the renovation of Terminal 1 that enabled it to be used for international as well as domestic flights.
The expansion of Terminal 2 was in part carried out to accommodate a new baggage logistics centre (BLC), housed on the service level, with the extended departures area above. The BLC opened for service on schedule in December 2009, with the smooth delivery and subsequent operation being testament to the cooperation between Finavia and Crisplant, which installed the new automated baggage handling system. It provided an additional 215,278sq ft (20,000m2) of space for handling and sorting baggage, with an overall length of over 6.2 miles (10km) and a peak capacity of more than 8,500 bags an hour.
Phase one of the airport redevelopment was opened on May 11, 2010, when 17 new check-in counters and an updated lounge area were used by the public for the first time. At the same time, the first bags were whisked from the new area through a tunnel to the BLC in the terminal extension.
No matter how clever a baggage handling system is, the sorting will always depend on the connection between the system and a common, international departure system used by the airlines. As part of this development, and again with valuable input from Finavia, Crisplant also installed a new manual encoding system for checked baggage. The system is used whenever there is a loss of communication via the internet between the common, international departure system and the baggage handling system with consequent loss of baggage source messages (BSMs). Without the messages the baggage system does not have the information needed to deliver bags to the correct flights.
In normal operating circumstances checked in baggage receives a unique ten-digit licence plate – a baggage tag. The airline’s departure control system assigns a BSM (which holds details such as passenger name, flight, etc) to the tag. When entering the baggage handling system, the bag tag is scanned, typically by an automatic tag reader (ATR), enabling the baggage handling system to read the ten digits and look them up in the database to find a corresponding BSM to route the bag to the right flight.
When the connection to the departure system is lost the standard solution is for check-in to continue as usual while staff at the – usually few – manual encoding stations within the baggage handling system manage the routing manually.
Unfortunately, at busy periods it usually doesn’t take long for the manual encoding stations to become overwhelmed, resulting in delayed fights and disrupted passenger flow through the airport. The stations are simply not designed to handle large quantities of baggage arriving at the same time.
To avoid this problem arising at Helsinki, Finavia and Crisplant’s solution – part of Crisplant’s BG Software Suite – was to shift the manual encoding upstream to the check-in desks. Check-in staff ensure all bags are assigned a BSM and are transported directly to the assigned gate without delay. It saves a great deal of time inside the baggage hall and removes the possibility of flights being delayed due to the late arrival of baggage.
For normal check-in operations, staff use an 8in (20cm) touch screen with an embedded PC to conduct the required procedures and send the bag into the handling system. If a connection is lost, the operator in the control room reconfigures the screens, which can be changed into a Tag Required or Tag or Flight Required mode. The check-in staff would then scan the bag tag with a hand-held scanner and select the flight manually on the screen before sending each bag into the baggage handling system. In this case the baggage handling system itself makes a local BSM containing licence plate number and flight only, which is just enough information for the bag to travel correctly through the baggage handling system as normal. When the connection to the common, international departure system has been re-established, the system will automatically add and update all the other details – including the passenger’s name and screening level requirements – to complete the BSM.
On rare occasions, an airport loses connection to the airline departure control system and the check-in desks are unable to print bag tags. Pre-printed fallback tags are then sent to check-in desks, staff are told where every flight is allocated and they ensure the bags are tagged correctly
With Helsinki’s new system, if all connectivity is lost, the encoding at check-in can be switched to fully manual mode to make destination assignments in the baggage handling system before sending the bag for screening and sorting. In such cases the bag will travel without a bag tag and reach the flight completely without use of fallback tags.
One slight criticism of the new set-up could be that if a system failed it takes a little longer to check in bags because there is an extra step in the procedure. However, in most cases extra check-in desks would be opened to assist. This is certainly not the case with manual encoding stations in the baggage handling system.
The proud boast of the Helsinki system is that loss of communication will no longer hit passenger flow-through or flight times due to late and mishandled baggage.