The Move to Boost Baggage Tracking

Aug. 8, 2018
Airlines press on in their progress toward meeting the baggage tracking goals of IATA Resolution 753.

Airlines have made major progress in reducing mishandled baggage. In 2017, just 5.57 bags per 1,000 passengers were mishandled, representing a 70.5 percent drop in mishandled bags since 2007, where 18 bags per 1,000 passengers were mishandled.

Though those numbers stand out in SITA’s 2018 Baggage Report, a few others do as well. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) reports a 7.6 percent rise in global passenger traffic, with passenger numbers hitting an estimated 4.08 billion in 2017. Airline revenue is also up, rising 6.3 percent to $754 billion.

This growth is putting considerable pressure on the industry’s baggage systems and processes. Though baggage mishandling improved 2.8 percent in 2017, the total number of mishandled bags was still 22.7 million, which cost the industry an estimated $2.3 billion.

A more alarming fact in SITA’s annual report was its long-term mishandling projections. Though the pendulum has swung in the airlines’ favor, baggage handling may move in the other direction as passenger counts rise.

“As passenger numbers increase, we may start to see the actual numbers of mishandled bags increase,” warns Peter Drummond, portfolio director of baggage for SITA. “We need to take steps to change, and that step is tracking bags at every point in their journey, like an Amazon parcel.”

It is at this point that IATA Resolution 753 comes in.

IATA Resolution 753 calls for industry-wide baggage tracking. The mandate, enacted in 2013 when it was unanimously agreed upon by all IATA members at the Joint Passenger Services Resolutions Conference, requires an airline to track a bag onto the aircraft, into arrivals or into transfers, then share this information with the next airport in the journey. Airlines were to meet these requirements by June 2018.

Though many airlines are not quite there yet, they are making headway, reports Drummond. Qatar Airlines, for instance, has received IATA approval for its Resolution 753 plan, and IATA is reviewing the plans of countless other airlines.

“Nearly every airline we speak to has a 753 plan or project in place,” Drummond says. “In a survey late last year, 40 percent of airlines reported plans to have 75 percent of their root network compliant [with Resolution 753] by the end of 2018.”

Andrew Price, head of global operations at IATA, is a little more conservative in his estimates.

“In the planning statements we’ve reviewed, we see that most airlines will meet 753 in their hubs by the end of 2019, and in their networks shortly after that,” he says.

Drummond adds U.S. carriers are finding it easier to implement Resolution 753 because they typically own the infrastructure at their terminals, making the internal investment clearer. At common use airports, mainly outside the U.S., the airlines and the airports must work together on these updates, and possibly, share the costs.

“Fortunately, the Airports Council International is on board with this resolution and has been helping their clients and partners as much as they can,” he says.

Patricia Maya, product manager of airport IT for Amadeus, states she’s not surprised by the willingness to work together.

“At the end of the day, everyone involved [airports, airlines and ground handlers] is looking for new technology, new processes and new infrastructure that allows them to improve the bottom line. And, Resolution 753 is all about the bottom line,” she says.

Though, Maya explains, implementing this resolution carries a cost, particularly to airlines, in the end these expenses will be offset as the number of mishandled bags falls.

“If a bag is mishandled, who pays for it?” she asks. “The airline. Whether they fly out of Airport A, and the bag is mishandled on the ground at Airport B, doesn’t matter. The airline will be responsible for the mishandling or loss of that bag. This resolution creates accountability by showing a record of where the bag went from Point A to Point B to Point C.”

Intangible costs also make this resolution attractive. When bags are mishandled, it can lead to dissatisfied customers. If customers are dissatisfied, they may avoid flying on a specific airline in the future.

Kim Madsen, senior system manager of Beumer Group, says, “An airline CEO once said, ‘I can serve champagne and caviar and the best seats on the plane, but if a passenger arrives at his destination and his baggage is not there, I lost my money’ and possibly a customer. Because the only thing that passenger will remember is that you lost his bags.”

Where Problems Lie

In Resolution 753, as spelled out in Beumer Group’s whitepaper titled “Baggage Handling Models that can Help the Implementation of IATA Resolution 753,” by Madsen, airlines agreed to:

  • Demonstrate the delivery of baggage when custody changes
  • Demonstrate acquisition of baggage when custody changes
  • Provide an inventory of baggage upon departure of a flight
  • Be capable of exchanging these events with other airlines as needed

Resolution 753 calls for a chain of custody, like the data-driven chain of custody police agencies adhere to for evidence. In a police investigation, the chain of custody lists who had contact with the evidence, the date and time the evidence was handled, the circumstances for the evidence being handled, and what changes, if any, were made to the evidence. This data is shared with all entities involved in the criminal justice process. Like the evidentiary chain of custody, every step of a bag’s journey must be cataloged and shared, from when a passenger checks in for a flight to its arrival at its destination, and should a bag’s course change, that should be noted and shared as well.

A bag’s travels typically go something like this: A passenger checks in and a bag source message (BSM) is generated. The BSM contains a wealth of data, including the date, flight number, destination, registration number and a unique barcode. This barcode, or IATA license plate, is checked against a computer database of departing flights and set for delivery to the correct terminal and gate. After a security check, a bag moves through an airport’s baggage systems to the correct loading bay. Here, ground handlers scan the baggage tag before loading the bag onto the plane. The bag then either travels to its destination directly or makes a few stops at other airports along the way, where it must be transferred to a different plane.

It is in this transfer process that things often go awry.

“Forty-seven percent of the bags that are mishandled are mishandled in the transfer process,” Madsen reports, noting paper baggage tags often wrinkle as handlers pack bags onto a flight, making it harder for automated systems to scan the BSM during transfers.

If the automated system cannot read the tags, ground handlers must resort to manual handling, which takes time. But time is at a premium as airlines keep connections to the shortest length possible.

Issues can also arise when bags arrive at their destination.

“Today in many airports, there is no tracking. The baggage is just unloaded onto the carousels, and then the passengers figure it out,” says Madsen. “There is no ticket saying that this bag was loaded to this carousel at this time. Studies have found that 40 percent of the reported ‘lost’ baggage was at the airport when the claim was made.”

Problems at arrival also open the door for fraudulent lost baggage claims, explains Drummond. Passengers can currently make a claim on lost baggage, and there is no good way of knowing if the bag was really lost.

“If you know that a bag has been tracked to a particular location, or if you have a picture of that bag, you can reduce fraudulent claims against the airline and the airport,” he says.

What does Resolution 753 require?

Currently, bags are only 100-percent tracked in the airport baggage system after check in. Issues arise as a bag moves out of that system and changes hands – for example, when it moves to a baggage handler, who loads it onto the plane. This is not an automated process, which Madsen says creates “a big risk for the bag to go missing or be misloaded. When there is no tracking, there is a higher potential for error. The resolution is trying to eliminate these black holes.”

Resolution 753 states the minimum set of recorded tracking points shall be:

1)         When the airline receives the bag from a passenger or its agent

2)         When the bag is delivered to the aircraft

3)         As the bag changes hands between carriers

4)         When the bag arrives and is delivered to the passenger

“Meeting the requirements of Resolution 753 will help airlines and airports improve the process, especially during transfers. They will get more detailed information and a clearer picture of what happened to the bag,” reports Madsen.

Price adds most airlines can meet Resolution 753’s requirements upon bag acceptance, but he laments, “it drops off a little bit for load because not everyone has load tracking, and it drops a little lower for transfers and arrivals, with arrivals representing the largest gap. This is where we need to put most of the infrastructure.”

When it comes to the technology needed to meet Resolution 753’s requirements, Madsen points out, “As a minimum, the resolution requires some level of manual scanning, but automated solutions should also be considered. The main purpose is to make sure the bag has reached its destination and is reconciled with its rightful owner at the right time. Bags will need to be tracked by either automated readers or staff using mobile handheld devices. Other technologies such as Global System for Mobile (GSM) communications/Global Positioning System (GPS)-enabled devices, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and beacons can also be used.”

Initially there was some confusion as to what technology was needed to meet the resolution’s goals, Drummond explains.

“There was a misunderstanding that you needed to have a particular technology to solve everything,” he says. “But there is a mix of multiple technologies that need to be in place.”

Each piece of technology in this mix also has a few shortcomings, he adds. Manual scanning can work, but Madsen indicates it can be an error-ridden, slow-moving process. Laser scanning of bag tags, using Automatic Tag Reading (ATR) technology, is already found in most automated baggage systems. It can work too, but these systems have a high error rate farther along a bag’s journey, as bag tags get damaged. Cameras, or Optical Character Recognition and Video Coding System technology, already widely used in the parcel industry, can complement these technologies. These systems can help identify flight numbers and airport codes as the bag is in motion. Finally, RFID can be used. When RFID chips are embedded on a tag, they offer almost 100 percent readability.

“But, while RFID tags are superior, their main barrier is cost,” reports Madsen. “There is a higher cost per tag.”

Maya adds, “RFID works well if you’re working in a particular region where this technology is fully adopted, but you have airlines flying all over the globe and into places where RFID has not been implemented. What then? How do you process those bags? It becomes very difficult.”

Ultimately every airline must develop a technology mix designed to meet their unique needs and that of their airport and ground handler partners. But, at minimum, Drummond states there needs to be a user reconciliation system at the airport to ensure bags get into the right container and onto the right aircraft. Additional technology can be added along the way. For instance, he says airlines can then add a portable or optical tracking device to track bags at transfer induction points, or to scan bags coming off one aircraft and being loaded onto another plane. Finally, airlines can install a tracking device, either portable or automated, to scan the bag on the arrival carousel.

“Then you need a global system to be able to use the data coming in from all the airports to have an end-to-end view of the baggage, as well as the capability to share that data either online or by messaging to provide the bag was tracked if there is a request for that information,” Drummond notes.

Maya agrees, but adds, “Larger operations have more systems in place, which could simplify the adoption for them. But at Amadeus, we believe that though large investment [in technology] is an option, it’s not the only option. We believe the same level of compliance can be achieved through data sharing at any level.”

She explains the moment a BSM is triggered, data sharing software that integrates with other systems across a bag’s journey, could give all entities access to the information they require. By sharing this information, everyone working on that flight, from the check-in agent to the ramp agent to the baggage agent to the operational agent knows there is a bag that belongs to Passenger X checked in for that flight. That level of visibility allows everyone involved on a flight to make effective decisions because they have the information they need already in hand.

Good News for Ground Handlers

The good news is once the infrastructure is in place, airlines can realize big results. According to Price, the airlines IATA has assisted with tracking have seen a 30-35 percent reduction in baggage mishandling.

“This data allows you to switch your baggage operation from being a factory that processes bags to a system that proactively looks for issues,” he says. “It will identify a bag that hasn’t got quite enough time at its connection and speed its journey up. This is what we call proactive baggage management."

The data being collected as airlines meet Resolution 753 will not only benefit the airlines in terms of accountability for mishandled bags, it will also benefit ground handlers. The data will improve key performance indicators (KPIs), which will enable airlines, airports and ground handlers to better manager their service level agreements (SLAs).

Being able to pinpoint where bags are mishandled also enables airlines, airports and ground handlers to address issues that arise.

“If a ground handler has a higher than acceptable rate of mishandled bags, the airline would see there is an issue. The ground handlers would also know there is an issue and those issues could be addressed,” reports Madsen.

Perhaps there is a need for enhanced training, maybe it’s a technology issue, maybe processes need to be changed.

“Right now, you wouldn’t have any way of knowing that,” he adds.

On the flip side, if a ground handler has a very low baggage mishandling rate, this is good information to have in hand when it comes time to renegotiate an airline contract.

“In terms of winning and maintaining agreements with airlines, if a ground handler is fully accountable for what they are doing, how they are doing and the type of service they are providing, they will be in good shape,” Maya says.

About the Author

Ronnie Wendt

Ronnie Wendt is a freelance writer based in Waukesha, Wisconsin. She has written about aviation-related topics for over a decade.