Is this summer’s baggage crisis an innovation opportunity?
BBC News published an article this summer about the “tech aiming to prevent lost airline luggage”. It was certainly timely given the horror stories at some European airports over the summer, both in mishandled bags and in customer service. The article quotes the SITA report that highlighted 19m mishandled bags and 1.3m lost bags in 2021. We are in 2022, and you still hesitate to check a bag for your next flight? You’re not alone 😉
Have you noticed that new warehouses, like Amazon’s, or new factories, like Tesla’s, are fully automated, also like data centres? What about bag handling at airports today, is it fully automated? No, unfortunately bags are still loaded manually in aircraft today, like 50 years ago… Until we go to “dark airports” and implement automation in bag handling, what options do travelers have when they travel with bags? This paper explores the root causes of the chaotic situation, the alternatives in the short term to avoid issues and in the longer term to fix the problem.
Overall the baggage operations for airlines is roughly a zero sum game. The cost of carrying 3 billion bags per year is about $30bn, or $10 per bag. This cost is roughly offset by ancillary bag fees also at around $30bn. The mishandled bags represent roughly an extra $3bn cost. The baggage operation processes are very complex and manual. Large airports use sophisticated sortation systems running on kilometres of belts. Bags are loaded and offloaded from aircraft manually, except for large aircraft with containers.
In this spring in Europe, as the Omicron wave was fading, consumers regained confidence, air traffic resumed and reached almost the levels of 2019 with load factors of 86%. The airport and bag handling staff, who were furloughed during 2020 and 2021, did not return fast enough in their jobs. This shortage was worsened by the Coronavirus still being active and putting staff on sick leave. Overall there were not enough hands for the manual bag processes.
Can tracking bags with electronic tags help?
The bag tags currently provided by airlines are equipped with barcodes which are read only at certain points in the end-to-end process. This means that airlines and airports have a limited view of where the bags are. Adding an electronic tag, either provided by the airline or included by the travelers themselves (like the Apple AirTag), may help locate the baggage beyond the existing tracking points at bag drop and before the carousel.
Tracking the bags may indeed help the travelers to find out where their bags are, for example if a bag is stuck in a warehouse waiting to be picked up by a delivery team. As such it can accelerate the retrieval of the bag and save time looking around 10,000 bags for a needle in a haystack. But these tags don’t make bags travel faster, don’t add hands to load bags in aircraft and don’t deliver bags at home.
Can one remove the baggage bottleneck at the airport?
One approach to tackle the baggage operation issue is to remove some baggage from the sortation systems, or at least at the peak times. This can be done at departure by dropping the bags off-airport or by picking up bags from home and processing them in parallel. At arrival, the airline may offer a home or hotel delivery of the bags.
There are live solutions that exist today, like Airportr quoted in the BBC article. A baggage agent comes to the traveler’s home, seals the bag and loads it into an electric van. The bag is carried safely to the destination. Due to current regulations, the bags travel in the same aircraft as the customers, but in time we can imagine that bags can travel independently. They could also be picked up by drones that can lift 20 kilo payloads.
Is there an alternative to bag sortation systems and manual loading?
The air travel industry still handles every bag individually and manually. Conversely the maritime shipping industry went through a containerization transformation. The maritime organizations got together and set standards for 20-feet and 40-feet containers. Over the past 50 years, lengthy processes were removed and replaced with container ships.
This transformation inspired André Safir with the Squarcle project, whereby travelers drop their bags directly into containerized lockers. There is no need for bag sortation and no manual intervention. Such radical invention has the potential to transform the baggage operations, reducing costs and mishandling, but also avoided future congestions and chaos in case of rapid changes in air traffic.
While bag operations have done a tremendous job at delivering billions of bags per year, they represent relatively high costs and a low resilience to irregular operations. The air travel industry has a major opportunity to learn from this summer’s Europe crisis and to explore new ways of handling bags – more automated, more cost-effective, most resilient and ideally more sustainable.