It's a New Bag, Man

Oct. 6, 2006
The onslaught of checked baggage and changing requirements put the focus on logistics.

In early August, British officials thwarted a suspected terrorist plot which caused airports around the world to adjust their security requirements. Those changes led to confusion in terminals and a staggering increase in checked luggage as passenger numbers continue to climb. Airports responded as quickly and efficiently as they could, but there are measures they can take to be better prepared to react to the changing environment. Here, AIRPORT BUSINESS speaks with Gloria Bender, managing principal of Fort Worthbased TransSolutions and Paul Bloch, joint managing director of U.K.based Transport & Logistics Consultancy Ltd., about some of the ways airports can prepare for change.

Bender says the most recent changes in security requirements were handled quite well by U.S. airports, in terms of passengers being made aware of what they could and could not take onto the airplane. "It's encouraging to me that all of us are focused on what the fundamentals of how that security checkpoint needs to work. What do we need to do to make it work better?

"The best way that airports can prepare themselves for changes in security is to completely understand their current process," says Bender. This includes having a detailed knowledge of the airport facilities as well as a detailed knowledge of their market, including:

  • how passengers arrive to the airport;
  • how soon before a flight do they arrive;
  • the airport's normal processing rate;
  • the demand; and,
  • function of the operation under normal conditions.

"When something changes, they can very quickly go in and modify their operation or make changes in the operation so they can react to the change in a positive way."

Bender calls this "increasing the granularity of the planning" an airport with plans that have more granularity are more open to change and allow for something that's "totally feasible and totally implementable when you actually go to build this and put it into operation.

"The more you understand your operations with more specificity, the better off you're going to be to react more nimbly to respond to these kinds of changes."

Bloch echoes Bender's remarks about the importance of knowing the airport and the habits of the passengers. Having a clear understanding of travelers' gender, how many bags per passenger, the average size of the bags, how many passengers arrive to the airport during peak times, and more will give the airport operator a better picture of the demand present.

Some sort of standardization throughout airport security screening could go a long way also, says Bloch. "Every regulatory body has different regulations for passenger security screening," he says. "And every airport interprets the regulation slightly differently; and every airport has their own preferred layout, methods, furniture, configuration of the queue that they think is perfect. As a passenger, you're subjected to all these different requirements no wonder passengers are confused and don't behave the way the airport would have them behave." Bloch sees a need for a best practices setup (for staffing, equipment, line layout, and job methods) in any given regulatory regime, and determining best practices would aid airports tremendously in reacting to security changes.

"If you have an engineered solution," says Bloch, "if you know that your xray infeed operator can infeed 627 bags an hour if the space between bags is ten inches, and someone says to you to increase that space between bags to 20 inches, you know precisely what it's going to do to your infeed rate. But if you don't build up your production based on those basic numbers, then when someone says double the interval, you just say I need twice as many machines. You may or may not."

Since August, a Big Jump

The more challenging aspect for airports and airlines is the increase in checked baggage. "Increasing checked bags by 20 percent is really a very large increase through the airport infrastructure for both the baggage handling system as well as the airline staffing," says Bender. Airports that are in the midst of planning for installation of inline baggage screening systems or other upgrades can return to their plans and make necessary changes for the future. Security changes that require immediate implementation present more of a challenge particularly when the industry doesn't know which Transportation Security Administration guidelines will remain.

Current baggage screening systems at most airports were not designed for the kind of demand that was caused when, for a period, every bag had to go through the baggage sort system, says Bloch.

Transport & Logistics Consultancy worked at airports during both the Syndey and the Athens Olympics. "In both cases," Bloch says, "we were able to handle many more bags than the system was designed to handle." But in both instances, he adds, the airports had time to plan for the influx, unlike with the recent response to terrorist activity. "I guess if I was an airport operator today, I'd be planning against the worstcase scenarios. Whatever the worstcase scenario I'd plan against, someone's going to dream up something worse and I can't imagine anyone would have planned in the U.K. [for] no carryon baggage. If BAA had some problems with their baggage capacity, it's not surprising."

Computer Modeling

TransSolutions uses computer simulation modeling to help its clients determine the best layout for security processing, including passenger and baggage screening. Bender says that some airport clients report checked baggage increases of 2030 percent since TSA implemented new carryon rules. "So clients have come back to us and asked us to rerun some of our models with the increased baggage demand to see if, number one, their current plans for expansion are still good; or number two, what changes they need to make in their operation to improve things."

While not all changes can be anticipated, including screening technology, Bender says the use of sensitivity analyses in the simulation process can be helpful. Bender uses sensitivity analyses to work with the model to see what will happen if processing time gets longer or screening equipment gets faster, slower, smaller, or larger. "With the ability to do sensitivity analyses, we're helping our clients build security operations that will be robust to changes in the future," she says. And with space always at a premium in airport terminals, modeling different layouts and scenarios can save an airport time as well as money.

Bloch says applying "basic production techniques" can be just as effective as computer modeling. "Ford [Motor Company] was applying production concepts to their factories in the early 1900s and they didn't use computers," says Bloch.

"If you understand your demand, the makeup of demand, the makeup of your capacity, and you're working in an engineered and controlled world, then when you have to make a change you have a thorough and controlled way of making that change."

No one can anticipate what the needs of airports and security will be in five to ten years, says Bloch. He suggests airports build out space based on today's best concepts and, "if you're in control, you can deal with changes reasonably."