By Branco Dennenberg, adviser occupational health & safety, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines
Baggage handling is heavy work and in the last years we have seen several initiatives to reduce this heavy manual labor. Among them are the developments of new types of loading equipment for ramp handling. One particular initiative was undertaken by the baggage handlers working at Schiphol, represented by the Schiphol Ground Handling Committee (SGHC). The SGHC joined forces with the Dutch Standardization Organization (NEN) to develop an international ISO standard for baggage. The objective: lighter baggage that is easier to handle.
Everyone who has flown in an aircraft knows that they have to check in well in advance. After check-in, suitcases disappear along the baggage belt leading to the baggage
basement at Schiphol airport. Below the ground, the checked in baggage is fed to the laterals or carrousels via a fully automatic sorting system. Baggage staff working here for handling agents then load the baggage manually onto carts or into containers. The fully packed carts or containers are then driven across the apron where aircraft loaders load the baggage into the aircraft. Working in this manner, baggage staff and aircraft loaders process thousands of suitcases of baggage every day.
Following a two-year study, the Labor Inspectorate concluded at the start of 2006 that the physical loads carried by baggage handlers are too high and that health and safety limits for lifting activities were exceeded dramatically in some cases.
In a follow-up to this study, the Schiphol Ground Handling Committee asked for a more detailed inventory to be compiled of the lifting loads for all handlers working at the different locations at Schiphol airport. In so doing, a combination of the NIOSH and Chaffin methods were applied coupled with knowledge accumulated at KLM Ground Services in 2002. It appeared that the lifting index exceeded 2 at numerous locations, even exceeding 3 at some locations, while the health & safety standard specifies a maximum lifting index of 1. Extra-heavy suitcases and an extended horizontal lifting range are two of the most important causes underlying the high lifting index. This differs not only in relation to the various handlers and work locations, but is to a large extent determined by the destination of the aircraft in question. On average, the suitcases of business travelers are far lighter than those presented by holidaymakers embarking on a journey for several weeks. The horizontal lifting range is largely determined by the depth of the carts and containers used for transporting baggage. As a result, baggage dimensions also play a role in relation to physical load.
Reducing the physical load
The Labor Inspectorate acknowledges that reducing the physical load is both complex and far-reaching in this sector. Given the international nature of the business, introducing a maximum permissible baggage weight would only be successful if it were to be applied across the board throughout the civil aviation industry. Around 45 percent of the passengers at Schiphol are in transit, which means that their baggage has already been checked-in in another country. Another factor is the airport’s infrastructure.
Based on the inspection report, SGHC joined forces with NEN to initiate a project directed at establishing an international ISO standard for baggage handling at airports. The aim is to standardize baggage characteristics in terms of both weight and dimensions. Consequently, baggage handling will become more efficient and the physical load will be reduced for baggage handlers.
As everyone who has flown in an aircraft knows, while airlines do set a maximum weight limit per passenger, they do not set a limit in relation to the weight of each individual item of baggage. Based on this weight concept, it is therefore possible that two passengers travel together with a suitcase weighing in at 40 kilograms. An international standard for baggage handling will make this impossible in the future.
However, there is still a long way to go in achieving this. For the time being, the initiators are still seeking to identify other countries willing to participate actively in the project. After all, the more countries that support the initiative the greater the chances of arriving at an international ISO standard. At present, aside from the Netherlands as one of the initiators, a number of European countries have also shown an interest in working towards achieving such a standard.
The aviation industry has changed dramatically in recent years. The threat of terrorism means that airlines, handlers and passengers alike now find themselves confronted with new and changing legislation. Fierce competition also means that airlines and baggage handling agents must remain actively involved in the latest developments.
Together with NEN, SGHC plans to raise the bar. However, in order to achieve anything in an international industry such as the airline industry, the standardization of baggage weight must be tackled at an international level. The standards are high and the road is long; standardization cannot be achieved overnight. In establishing an international standard for baggage weight, national standardization organizations serve to ensure that an even balance is maintained between the interested parties. Standardization is therefore a question of reaching consensus. In other words, the aim is to reach agreement on standardization based on sound arguments. In substantiating the ultimate proposal, it is not so much a question of all parties being in agreement but of everyone acknowledging the reasonableness of the arguments, and being prepared to apply the standard.
After all, the industry is tackling the problem of physical load in other ways too. As the biggest handler at Schiphol, KLM initiated a process of further baggage-handling mechanization in 2000. Within the scope of this project, the airline is working in cooperation with Amsterdam Airport Schiphol (AAS). Because this relates to a long-term solution and not all aspects of the process can be mechanized in the future, SGHC asked AAS to begin studying alternatives for a new class of lifting equipment in the baggage basements. The use of such equipment is not yet common practice in the current handling process. Tests using a vacuum system proved that these tools are suitable for loading rampcarts. In the near future the first 62 vacuum systems will be installed in the basement of Schiphol Airport.
On the apron as well, handling agents are hard at work to find technical solutions to lessen the load. For example, a number of airlines now use containers in the hold to prevent loaders from having to go through the entire hold with a suitcase. Additionally, a great deal of attention has been devoted to new transport belts. Where current transport belts do not pass further than the threshold, the new versions penetrate deep into the hold.
Will all passengers be required to travel with suitcases of the same dimension in the future? The handlers don’t intend to go that far at this point. While all initiatives are for the better, baggage handling will always require human input — at least to a certain extent. Passengers must therefore realize that their suitcases still need to be lifted by hand.