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Expert interview on baggage tracking and IATA Resolution 753

Roland Karch is Strategic Industry Manager of Airports at SICK. This job keeps him up-to-date on the requirements and current trends in the aviation industry. This provides him with important knowledge which helps SICK offer suitable solutions to customers in the industry. The gapless tracking of baggage is only one issue here - but it is a good example for the performance and versatility of SICK sensor solutions.

What happens to the bag when it is checked at the counter? 

More than you’d think. The airline or the groundhandler working for the airline generates a baggage source message, BSM for short. Among other pieces of information, the BSM contains the flight number, the flight date, the flight destination, the passenger name and the unique ID, which incorporates the so-called LPN (license plate number). This LPN is a ten-digit number which is printed on the baggage label both in plain text and in the form of a bar code.

 

After the label is attached, the bag is fed into the baggage handling system. It is then checked for suspicious substances when passing through X-ray machines, after which it finally reaches the baggage loading area after traveling very long distances under some circumstances. 

 

How does bag drop and transport work at a self-service station? 

At the self-bag-drop stations, the passengers do the bag drop on their own. There are basically two different self-bag-drop processes: The one-step and the two-step process. In the one-step process, the baggage label is issued and the actual bag drop process is done at the same counter. At this counter, the passengers receive their baggage labels, which they attach to the bag. They then hand over the bag at the self-drop machine so it will be fed into the conveyor system. In fully-automated systems, the bar code printed on the baggage label is either read by bar code scanners when at a standstill (static) or when passing by (dynamic). Other automated functions of the self-bag-drop systems are the measurement of the bag for excessive size or length as well as the detection of weight and volume. 3D sensors can check whether the bag can be conveyed in the system as an option. For example, bags are identified which could lead to damage in the baggage system. Passengers are then instructed to take the bag to the special or bulky baggage counter. 

To rule out manipulation, sensors detect intrusions in the self-bag-drop machines and stop the bag drop process should they occur. 

 

Do it yourself. The scanner does the work. 

In the two-step process, the baggage label is issued and the bag is dropped in separate processes. For many airlines, passengers can check in online at home or at a check-in kiosk at the airport. They can then print the boarding pass and the baggage label at the kiosk. If the airline offers the option of a home printed bag tag (HPBT), passengers can print out their baggage labels at home. The so-called e-tags are the most modern and convenient variant. These are permanent tags onto which the passengers transmit the current flight information to their smartphones using an app and Bluetooth. These are then shown on the display of the e-tag, like on a traditional paper label. In all cases, the passengers only have to drop their bags at the self-bag-drop machines. In the self-bag-drop system, the automated “bar code reading”, “excessive size and length detection” functions, etc. are the same for the one-step and two-step process. SICK offers the right solutions for all these functions.

 

Which technologies can be used to track bags?

Basically, three technologies are currently used in baggage handling technology to read baggage labels: Laser, camera and RFID technology.

 

What are the differences between laser, camera and RFID technology?

Conventionally, a bar code scanner based on laser technology is used to read bar codes printed on the baggage label. This can be a simple hand-held device or a so-called ATR (automated tag reading) system consisting of several single bar code scanners. ATRs are used where high baggage volume makes automated reading necessary. For example, these are at the points in the baggage handling system in which the bags must be clearly assigned to the X-rays, and in the sorting processes to automatically feed the bags to the assigned baggage loading station over long distances through the baggage handling system.

 

Cameras increase performance.

ATRs can also be equipped with cameras as an alternative. The already very good read rates can be improved even more with this technology. Read rates are also an indicator for system performance. Another benefit of a camera-based ATR system is that the images taken can be evaluated in a later process step using optical character recognition (OCR) and video coding. This is particularly useful when the data necessary for further transport within the system - the information from the BSM (baggage source message) - is not available in the baggage handling system computer. OCR and video coding then collect additional information (e.g. the flight number) at an MES (manual encoding station) without losing time and without manual work. The bag is transported directly to the right baggage loading point using this information.

With these two technologies - laser or camera - the baggage label must be visible. A label covered by a frequent flier tag or situated on a tilt-tray sorter under the suitcase, for example, cannot be read. 

 

RFID - moving invisibly into the future. 

The third technology used in baggage handling is RFID technology. A transponder is used as a storage medium for the data. The big advantage is that the label does not have to be visible for the reading device. And more information can be stored in the RFID tag compared to the data content of a paper label.  

The disadvantage is that the necessary infrastructure is not yet used extensively. Since printers, automated reading systems, hand-held devices and IT systems are designed to read information printed on paper labels, the use of a hybrid label (paper with integrated RFID) is still necessary in most cases where RFID is used.  

The infrastructure in the larger airports in Australis was equipped with RFID technology years ago. That means this technology can be used consistently and very successfully for domestic Australian flights - without the familiar paper label. For flights from Australia to Europe or North America through the large aviation hubs, however, a paper label still has to be used. 

But we are currently seeing an increase in the trend towards RFID technology, particularly in the US and China.

 

Why is it important to reduce the number of mishandled bags? 

The number of mishandled bags - late, damaged or lost baggage - has been reduced in the last few years thanks to various improvements in baggage transport. According to the annual SITA “Baggage Report”, however, 2.1 million US dollars were spent on mishandled baggage in 2016 alone. It is not only these expenses which are incentive for additional effort from the entire industry - the good reputation of all airlines is also at play. Customer satisfaction is an important part of customer loyalty.

 

What is IATA Resolution 753 about? What exactly is changing? 

In short, airlines which are members of the IATA are required to keep exact inventory lists of baggage - from the time of bag check to return to the passenger.

For airlines, this means that they have to document the gapless tracking of baggage for the entire transportation distance, from the start of the trip to the end. This includes all the different responsibilities for the baggage. Weakness throughout the sometimes long distances of the bag are reliably identified and improved with this consistent tracking system.

 

How do SICK products contribute to the implementation of Resolution 753? 

There are still gaps in baggage identification, especially in the area of transit and arrivals. SICK can do the basic work for fulfilling IATA Resolution 753: Reading information printed on the baggage label or saved in an RFID tag. This makes consistent baggage tracking possible. This ultimately leads to welcome cost reductions for airlines concerning mishandled baggage, which also increases customer satisfaction.

 

SICK is the market leader in this field with the world’s largest installed basis for automated reading systems for baggage labels. The first systems from SICK were put into operation at the Paris Charles de Gaulle airport in 1990. Today, reading systems from SICK are installed at the largest airports in the world, for example Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson, Dubai International, Tokyo Haneda, London Heathrow, Hong Kong International and many more. SICK is not only capable of providing the right products and system solutions worldwide, but can also incorporate requirements for customers and consult them accordingly. And SICK is so qualified for this job that customers receive a solution developed exactly to their needs. SICK can do this thanks to the support of its capable employees all over the world who can boast many years of experience. No matter which technologies can ultimately be used for the respective application, SICK employees focus on the customer’s needs and work together with the customer to find the best solution.

 

And the successful completion of the project by no means signals the end of collaboration for SICK. After sales care is an important part of out partnership with the customers. Today, SICK service employees ensure smooth operation of baggage handling systems all over the world.

 

Find out more: "The Baggage Connection"

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