Baggage

Lost bag rate dips. Again.

Good news for air travelers who check their bags and worry about those bags getting to their destination.

According to the just-issued SITA 2018 Baggage Report, airlines around the world have once again improved the rate of baggage delivery, continuing a more than decade-long trend of improvement which has seen baggage mishandling drop by 70% since 2007.

The rate of bag mishandling has dropped, notes SITA, even though 2017 saw a rise in the number of passenger to more than 4 billion.

In 2017, the number of mishandled bags was 5.57 per thousand passengers, the lowest level ever recorded.

That’s good news, but mishandled bags cost the industry an estimated $2.3 billion in 2017. And it is of course a hassle if it is your bag that ends up delayed or lost.

So SITA is encouraging airlines to continue investing in end-to-end bag tracking.

“Over the last decade, we have seen significant improvements in bag management as airlines have taken advantage of technology,” said Barbara Dalibard, CEO, SITA, “End-to-end tracking produces data which reveals where improvements can be made in operational processes. While we won’t see a sudden change in 2018, it is a real turning point for the industry as airlines begin to unlock the value of the tracking data for the 4.65 billion bags they carry.”

 For a look at what happens to your checked bags once you hand it over at the check-in counter, see my recent At the Airport column on USA TODAY: The trip your luggage takes without you.

What happens to those checked bags?

My ‘At the Airport’ column for USA Today this month was all about the journey luggage takes between the check-in counter and the plane.

Here’s a slightly shortened version of the original column:

For passengers, the route from airport curb, through security, to the gate and onto the plane usually proceeds in straightforward, if often slow, irritating and all too familiar steps.

But what about the journey checked luggage takes from the check-in counter to the plane?

That process is a mystery to most travelers, but not a secret, so I visited Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) to follow the route luggage takes from the ticket counter, into the “bag well” (a noisy, cavernous, machine and luggage-filled area where all checked bags spend time) and out to the planes.

Sea-Tac Airport, like many other fast-growing airports around the country, is working with the Transportation Security Administration to upgrade and optimize its current baggage handling system to make the process faster, smoother and more reliable.

But, at just about every airport, the route a bag takes from the check-in counter to the plane continues to be, essentially, the same.

“You come into the airport lobby and you or an agent at your airline ticket counter puts a bag tag on the bag,” said Ed Weitz, Capital Project Manager for the Port of Seattle. “The airline then associates that bag tag with a ten-digit code and puts it on the [moving] belt so it can go through the wall and into the airport’s baggage handling system on the other side.”

At SEA, the ‘other side’ is like a highway made up of 12 miles of conveyor belts (10 miles for outbound bags; 2 for inbound bags headed to bag claim). Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport has 14 miles of conveyors across its five terminals and, at Los Angeles International Airport, the Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT), which processes about 25,000 outbound bags a day, has 3 miles of conveyor all its own.

By contrast, at tiny Walla Walla Regional Airport in Washington State, where there are 4 or 5 roundtrip flights a day (depending on the day) there are 20 feet of conveyor belts in the bag handling system. At Eastern Oregon Regional Airport in Pendleton, which offers 3 roundtrips daily to Portland on Boutique Air, “Bags travel about 25 yards on a private, hand-pushed baggage cart, often by the same person that checked you in,” said airport manager Steven Chrisman.

I wasn’t able to travel with the bags on the conveyors at the Seattle Airport, but both DFW Airport and Amsterdam Schiphol Airport have shared short videos offering thrilling bag eye-views of the journey.

 

At SEA, checked bags from various airlines mingle together on the conveyor system that first takes the bags to and through one the TSA’s Explosives Detection System (EDS) machines.

If the bags are cleared, they go to the ‘sortation’ phase of their journey, where luggage tags are automatically scanned and bags are divvied up by airline.

After that, a system of diverters sends bags by batches of flights to a carousel ‘makeup’ area where bag handlers armed with tag readers stand ready to manually separate bags by flight.

“As the bag comes through on the conveyor belt, I scan it to see if it’s a bag for my flight,” said Delta Air Lines Ramp Agent Kim Farrington. If so, Farrington transfers the bag from the carousel to a cart that, when full, gets driven out to the plane where handlers move the bags from the cart to a belt loader that sends them up into the plane.

For wide-body aircraft, containers filled with baggage may be taken from the bag well and loaded directly into the hold.

On Delta, and other airlines that have embedded RFID (radio frequency identification) tags into the traditional bag tags, there’s an added step: a photo eye reads the RFID into on the bag tag as its goes onto the plane and notifies a passenger via an app that their bags have been loaded. When the bags come off the plane at the other end, the photo eye reads it again and lets the passenger know they’ll soon be reunited with their luggage.

Better Bag Hygiene

Cameras, RFID tracking systems and other improvements are helping lower the number of checked bags that are lost, damaged, delayed or pilfered. But Dereck Howard, Delta Air Line’s Department Manager, Below Wing at Sea-Tac Airport, told me the number of lost and delayed bags could be lower if more passengers practiced better “bag hygiene.”

That includes making sure old luggage tags are removed and new ones are put on neatly.

“If you are self-tagging, don’t put the tag somewhere where it can slip off,” said Howard, “And be sure to peel off the little secondary ‘bingo’ tag from the bag tag and put it somewhere else on the bag so we can read that if the main tag falls off.”

Howard also advises passengers to “neaten up,” their luggage before checking it in. That includes securing loose straps that might get caught in the conveyor belt rollers and machinery and making sure not to check bags that are over packed or those with faulty or straining zippers or closures that could pop open during the bag’s journey.

Snaps from a visit to an airport bag well

As part of research for an upcoming story, I spent two days visiting the ‘bag well’ at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport finding out what happens to your checked lugagge once you hand it over to your airline.

The short version: your bag travels on a freeway-like conveyor system that sends the bag to and through a TSA explosives detection machine and then back to the airline for sorting so can be sent to your airplane and loaded onto it.  The bag tag is scanned multiple times along the way to keep tabs on its whereabouts.

Here are some snaps from my adventure. Stay tuned for the full story.

 

 

Souvenir Sunday: a journey with “Luggage”

On my travels this week I’ve been toting a review copy of Susan Harlan’s book, Luggage, which is part of Bloomsbury’s charming Object Lessons series.

The slim book is travel-sized, but densely-packed and Harlan has stuffed it with stories and side-trips that touch not just on the actual history and development of suitcases, bags, trunks, carry-ons and valises, but on the role baggage plays in literature, art and films.

Remember Mary Poppins’ carpet bag?

“It contains all of her desires,” writes Harlan, and is a “powerfully enabling object” from which the nanny is somehow able to produce a lamp and a mirror (in the 1964 Disney movie) and, in the novel by P.L. Travers, everything from an apron to an armchair.

Poppins’ luggage was not only magical, notes Harlan, it gave her freedom. “She can come and go as the wind changes, which would hardly be possible with a steamer trunk,” Harlan writes.

In “Luggage,” Harlan tells us about her own collection of vintage luggage, a bit of how she and others approach packing and of her visit to to Alabama’s vast Unclaimed Baggage Center, which is not just a store but a tourist destination.

Along the way she unpacks the role and relationship baggage has to everything from home and gender to class, memory, loss and, of course, travel.

“The history of luggage is the history of travel: how we traveled, and why, and where, and what we have packed,” Harlan tells us at the beginning of this journey, “It is virtually impossible to think of traveling without luggage.”

 

 

 

 

Airlines roll out new “smart luggage” rules today

Starting today, January 15, airlines will no longer allow passengers to checkg or carry on “smart luggage” with non-removable lithium batteries.

Powered luggage began appearing on the market a few years ago and some new versions of these high-tech bags can weigh themselves, be locked remotely, report their locations, provide power for gadgets, offer rides to the gate and follow travelers around.

The extras are enticing, but industry-wide concern over lithium batteries igniting and starting fires led the International Air Transport Association to instruct its almost 300 airline members to restrict carriage of certain bags:

“Effective 15 January 2018, for IATA member airlines, baggage with removable installed Lithium batteries (“smart luggage”) must be carried as carry-on baggage or the battery must be removed. With the battery removed the bag can be checked-in. If the battery cannot be removed, the bag is forbidden for carriage.”

Citing “safety management and risk mitigation,” American Airlines was among the first to alert its customers to the impending rule change. The carrier also said the standard question it asks customers checking bags – “Have you packed any e-cigarettes or spare batteries for laptops, cellphones or cameras?” – would be altered to include smart bags.

Other airlines are changing their check-in and boarding procedures as well.

“Throughout our guests’ journey, we will remind them to remove all lithium batteries from checked luggage, or disconnect and turn off batteries being stored in the overhead bins,” said Alex Da silva, a Hawaiian Airlines spokesman, “We are also training employees on the various types of smart bags so they may assist customers.”

Some smart luggage manufacturers are scrambling to redesign their smart bag products to comply with the new airline rules. Others are making sure customers know how, and how easily, the lithium batteries can be removed from their bags. And companies who have smart bags without lithium batteries are touting that feature.

“We believed that there would come a time when lithium batteries could be seen as a safety issue. So we purposely powered our luggage with AAA batteries to avoid any of these potential future rulings,” said Emran Sheikh, President and CEO of luggage manufacturer and distributor Heys International.

Sheikh and others emphasize that it is the type of battery used in some “smart” luggage designs that is the problem, not the category of ‘smart luggage’ in general.

“The airline industry’s recent attention to safety surrounding lithium ion batteries should boost our confidence that the travel industry is monitoring current trends and updating their own best practices to reflect modern travelers’ habits and needs,” said Michele Marini Pittenger, president of the Travel Goods Association, Consumers can expect to see luggage manufacturers respond accordingly and release new iterations of smart luggage featuring even safer power sources.”

(My story on new smart luggage rules first appeared on CNBC in a slightly different form.)