Having traveled to 31 countries till now, I definitely agree with Skytrax when they quote the single most annoyance factor in airline travel being lost or delayed baggage. And as the number of passengers traveling by air continues to increase, so will the baggage handling complexity. While there are airports like Changi (SG) which have tried to set targets of 12 min for first bag on belt (from aircraft to conveyor belt), on average, it takes about 25 – 40 min to get the bags on belt in airports. In addition to airports trying to improve baggage processes (and thereby improve overall customer satisfaction), there’s also the IATA resolution 753, which mandates that by 2018, members will need to maintain accurate inventory of baggage. Both these factors will lead to new innovations in how bags are handled today.

So, what will the future for a traveling-bag look like?

Ultimately, I see airports as a logistics hub – be it the movement of passengers, bags or cargo. And hence, applying some of the IoT principles seen in logistics to airport baggage handling processes and systems, here are some of my takeaways.

Prevalent: ideas already seen at various airports…

  • Home printed bag tags or permanent digital bag tags: Frequent travelers would greatly appreciate the option of printing a baggage tag at home or, even better, having a permanent tag type of device – which can digitally update the flight / traveler information and help keep track of the bag in transit (e.g. Qantas, British Airways, Airfrance-KLM are already identifying baggage handling process changes to include permanent bag tags)
  • Curbside or downtown check-in: While this is already a useful feature at various airports (e.g. Frankfurt, HK), it is expected to be extended naturally to other airports
  • Self check-in bags: How long have you stood in a luggage deposit queue even though you’ve checked-in online? Many airports are already going live with self check-in bag deposit counters (e.g. Amsterdam Schiphol airport, Paris airport)
  • RFID labels and sorting belts: With IATA resolution 753, various airlines/airports are expected to switch on to RFID baggage labels instead of barcode-only labels. With 97% read rates (vs. 80% in barcode-only), ability to read from a distance (instead of close proximity) and cost per tag reducing ($0.10 extra cost vs. barcode-only), RFIDs are here to stay in baggage handling. RFID has been prevelant in logistics processes for a while and their use in baggage logistics not only makes tracking more efficient but also provides a huge amount of data which can be used to improve the overall baggage process
  • High speed conveyor belts: Singapore’s Changi airport already boasts of a high speed conveyor belt with totes averaging 7m/sec. Do we see even faster belts in the future?

Pilot: ideas being tested at select airports…

  • Bag drop robots: Imagine reaching the airport and being greeted by a robot who you can hand over your bag to and seamlessly go to the immigration! Geneva airport is testing such a bag drop robot outside airport to reduce the queues at check-in
  • Automated early bag storage systems: More advanced storage systems (similar to those now used in warehouse logistics) can be modified to fit for purpose for baggage handling. Bergen airport in Norway is now using such a system – CrisStore
  • Robotic loading/ unloading: Automated baggage drop-off from conveyor belts to trolley-carts are already in use at Airport Schiphol. These are the same kind of robots that are being tested out in logistics area (specially warehouse packaging, labeling activities) – easily applicable to baggage logistics with the right attachments and programming of the robots
  • Bag journey apps: Again, with IATA 753 resolution and with frequent flyers wanting more control and transparency over “where is my bag”, bag journey apps which tell the passenger key milestones that the bag has reached (e.g. checked-in, boarded plane, de-boarded, at pick-up belt 6, etc.) will see more uptake. Delta airline estimates 10%-25% decrease in misplaced bags with such an app.
  • Bag picked up or delivered at home: So does your bag need to travel with you? Or would you rather finish a meeting or visit another tourist location, while your bag is transported directly from the hotel to the airport? This is what London Heathrow airport is trying to achieve via their ‘airportr’ service – which ultimately aims to reduce airport waiting times and increase customer satisfaction. Last mile logistics companies listening?!

Potential: not aware if already used anywhere, but could be interesting if applied (replicating from logistics industry)…

  • Autonomous trolley-carts from aircraft to conveyor and vice versa: If Kiva robots can be used in an Amazon warehouse to bring the shelf to the warehouse staging area instead of logistics person walking to the shelf… imagine if the trolley carts we see near the aircrafts can autonomously drive to the respective conveyor belts staging area instead of being manually driven by baggage handlers?!
  • Urgent bag movements by drones or UGV (unmanned ground vehicle): While use of drones is debatable given the regulatory and privacy constraints, my hypothesis is that in restricted intra-logistics movements, drones can become quite useful. So imagine a last minute check-in passenger whose luggage needs to be transported in minutes from passenger terminal to aircraft… would a secure drone confined within the boundaries of the airport baggage movement area be useful for such “batch size one” movements?
  • Trolley-cart loading with augmented reality: Imagine the baggage handler wearing google glasses which gives the instructions on the loading instructions to load the bags into the trolley-cart in the most effective and least damaging manner given the size, dimensions and weight of the bags. Augmented reality could replace the need for a supervisor and reduce the damage due to baggage handling

The above changes do mean increase in investment in baggage handling systems and processes today, however the KPIs for accuracy, on-time baggage, capacity of BHS and overall transparency will definitely improve for the better tomorrow.  Happy travels!