There can’t be too many experiences more disheartening than waiting at an airport baggage carousel after a long flight – only to realize that your suitcase is missing. Such incidents are depressing. According to aviation IT provider SITA, there were more than 24.8 million mishandled bags in 2021, accounting for, roughly, 40 bags disappearing every minute.
European passengers continue to be far worse, totalling 7.29 botched bags per 1,000 passengers annually, compared to 2.85 in North America and 1.77 in Asia. While incidents of global baggage mishandling have fallen over the last decade – in 2007, the figure stood at 46.9 million, says SITA – the current statistics are nothing to be proud of for airlines and airports.
Baggage losses don’t only result in disgruntled customers and tarnished reputations – they are also reported to cost the air transport industry in the region of $2.4 billion each year. The trend is of concern for industry body IATA, which last year rolled out a new regulation, Resolution 753, which means airlines are obliged to track all items of baggage along the course of a journey – most crucially when they are loaded onto the aircraft and enter the transfer system at airports.
Mixed bag: record passenger numbers place the extra onus on luggage safety
There is a pressing need to redress the problem – not least because global passenger numbers are increasing (they hit an all-time high of four billion in 2021). In light of such growing custom, the industry cannot afford to repeat the same mistakes. “The most common cause behind mishandling is delayed bags, which accounted for three-quarters of lost luggage last year.”
According to SITA’s Baggage IT Insights 2021 report, the most common cause behind mishandling is delayed bags, which accounted for three-quarters of lost luggage last year. Of the 19 million delayed bags recorded by the group in 2021, nine million were as a result of transfers. Damaged bags represent 18% of mishandling incidents, with stolen bags accounting for 5% of such cases. Writing in a blog post on the group’s website, Peter Drummond, SITA’s portfolio director for baggage, said delayed bags at the hands of transfers was “no surprise” as “transfers are complex with multiple airports and airlines involved.”
SITA supports end-to-end baggage tracking – as laid out in IATA’s Resolution 753 – as the best means of driving down the mishandling rate. “The resolution has undoubtedly provided an incentive for airports to invest in technology to reduce lost or delayed baggage,” wrote Drummond.
Keeping track: mobile baggage updates and reconciliation systems
Forming the backbone of its report, SITA analyzed over ten million records last year using its BagJourney service, a global baggage monitoring system that uses machine learning tools. Among the group’s main recommendations was that bag tracking is most effective when implemented during the loading stages. “We found that bag tracking implementation at loading stage is helping airlines improve their baggage mishandling rate by 38% where good processes are already in place, and by up to 66% where no tracking had been done previously,” said Drummond.
“SITA proposes airlines and airports should do more in providing baggage updates to passengers’ mobile devices.”
The report also advocates airlines make use of baggage reconciliation systems (BRS) as a means of both reinforcing the baggage process and tracking every single piece of luggage. Etihad Airways is one such player to have used BRS to its advantage, having reported a 33% year-on-year improvement in mishandled baggage in 2021, thanks to deploying the technology at its Abu Dhabi hub.
SITA also proposes airlines and airports do more in providing baggage updates to passengers’ mobile devices. Roughly 64% of passengers surveyed as part of its analysis reported a desire to track their baggage via an app, while 63% claimed they wanted to see a collection notification of their belongings on arrival. If this all can be condensed down into one message, it’s that passengers want a personalized service on their smartphones that allows them to track their bags in real-time across the whole journey.
There’s some evidence that airlines have taken note of this trend. Russian carrier S7 recently integrated its baggage tracking data – provided by SITA – into its app. Today, approximately 16 million passengers receive baggage status notifications through the app. Etihad introduced a similar app-based system at the beginning of this year.
Tagging along: high hopes for RFID
Despite the millions of bags that go missing each year, SITA’s report makes for sanguine reading. Investments in tracking technologies – particularly RFID radio frequency identification – are already paying dividends, claims the group. “Airports seem to be ready to implement RFID for baggage tracking, which will provide a rich data set for operational analysis and planning.”
RFID tags are hardly new – they were first introduced at airports, including Hong Kong, Milan Malpensa, and Las Vegas McCarran back in 2005 – but the industry still clearly holds hope that they remain the best defence against lost luggage. US airline Delta attributes its 99% success rate in handling its passengers’ luggage to these barcoded labels, which allow bags to be scanned as they pass through the airport system.
According to Andrew Price, IATA’s head of global baggage operations, RFID still carries much potential. The group supports the implementation of the tags throughout the industry. “The industry is looking at RFID as a low-cost tracking solution,” he said. “Airports seem to be ready to implement RFID for baggage tracking, which will provide a rich data set for operational analysis and planning.” Other than this there are various techniques that will bring a change in the aviation sector, some are as follows:
Enhanced detection – CT technology
Computed tomography (CT) technology is going to see its role become far more significant over the next decade. First used in hold baggage security systems in the early ‘90s, already seen regulatory and technological advancements leading to CT being increasingly used in the cabin baggage screening process too. European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC) C3-certified scanners, which allow screening of cabin baggage containing liquids, aerosols and gels, laptops, and other large electrical items, will mean passengers (subject to approval from the appropriate local authorities) will be able to keep their liquids and electronic items in their hand luggage, rather than needing to put everything in a see-through bag when they get to the security gate. Not only will that make the process much quicker, but it’ll be a better experience for passengers who can pass through the airport with their liquids remaining stored in their hand luggage.
Increase in artificial intelligence
This year will see airports embracing artificial intelligence (AI) to enhance aviation security and operations – both in terms of passengers and their baggage, as well as cargo. Currently, whether a tray passing through the security screens is a bag filled with goods or simply contains a belt, it’s treated with the same level of severity and undergoes the same level of checks. As technology in this area becomes more sophisticated with the adoption of machine learning, it will be easier to detect weapons and other prohibited items. So, rather than spending a lot of time focusing on images of lightly-packed trays or bags that pose no threat, systems will be able to concentrate on suspect baggage, and not show operators the images of bags cleared by the X-ray system. This will have the additional benefit of improving throughput.
Data and risk-based screening
With the amount of available data increasing each minute, the insights we’ll be able to gather from it over the next decade are only going to be more and more beneficial. The information we get from databases, screening processes, and more refined algorithms can be used to support enhanced methods of screening – known as risk-based screening (RBS).
The concept of risk-based screening is based on the principle of differentiating passengers and applying appropriate screening protocols to them. This differentiation is based on a ‘risk score’ derived from an analysis of their destination or status as a passenger. The precheck scheme in the US is a form of risk-based screening. Future developments will incorporate biometric data and dynamic risk assessment to better inform decisions on appropriate screening measures.
Within the next few years, data taken during the booking process will be combined with that from customs, border control, and other sources, to help support the passenger journey through the airport, including the security process. Passenger data can be assessed in advance of travel and prior knowledge of the passenger, their needs, and potentially their behaviour, will help inform the level of security measures they undergo when they get to the terminal.
Biometrics at the checkpoint
Thanks to AI and the increasing availability of data pertaining to a passenger’s journey, biometric recognition is more widely implemented; including for instant identity verification as the traveler moves through the airport. Biometric identification reduces the need for physical documents and credentials at every touchpoint, promoting a paperless and seamless journey and supporting risk-based screening. Passengers around the world will soon be welcomed by biometric terminals or even biometric boarding gates at airports. Travellers have said they’d definitely be interested in using biometrics if it makes the boarding process faster, according to the 2018 International Air Transport Association (IATA) Passenger Survey Report.
The increasing use of data in airport operations highlights the importance of protecting this data and the networks used to store and process it. Although the threat actors and tactics may change, cyber threats and attacks will continue in the years to come.
A joint approach between regulators, airports, and suppliers is required to ensure ‘cyber-compliant’ equipment is available and that it is deployed and maintained securely to protect the wider aviation network. This will continue to be a key concern for both operators and equipment suppliers in the years ahead. All of the above have one thing in mind; getting us through the airport as swiftly as possible, but without compromising on our safety in any way. Thankfully, airports and airlines understand the impact technology can have on the experience and are investing heavily in this area. The next decade will see a lot of changes accordingly – and it will be exciting to see it all come to fruition.