Baggage

Airlines vow: better bag tracking + fewer barriers for passengers with disabilities

My feature this week for CNBC details two good-for-travelers resolutions voted in recently during the Annual General Assembly of the International Air Transport Association.

One deals with a way to better track baggage. The other promises that the global airline industry will ease barriers for passengers who have disabilities.

Here’s a slightly different version of the posted story:

Airlines spend lots of time, energy and money competing against each other for your travel dollar and loyalty, even though high fares and excessive fees often make it seem like they’re in cahoots to make sure your journey is a frustrating, expensive nightmare.

But sometimes the industry works together to takes global action in your favor.

At the recent Annual General Meeting of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the industry trade group passed a handful of resolutions aimed at making the passenger experience better for everyone.

Two of the resolutions that might make a noticeable difference on your next flight, and on flights into the future, address bag tracking and accessibility for people with disabilities.

Better baggage tracking. Fewer lost bags.

Most frequent travelers can share a story or two about a checked bag that got mangled, arrived days late or went missing.

But while passenger numbers soared 64% between 2007 and 2017, information technology company SITA found that the bag mishandling rate per thousand of passengers fell by 70.5%.

In 2018, 4.36 billion travelers checked in more than 4.27 billion bags.

“More bags makes things more challenging,” notes Peter Drummond, SITA’s Director of Baggage, and while “Everyone across the industry needs to look beyond the process and technology improvements made in the past decade and adopt the latest technology such as tracking to make the next big cut in the rate of mishandled bags.”

Right now, most airlines use bar code technology to track bags through their journey. But some airlines, such as Delta, have switched to RFID (radio frequency identification) tracking, a form of wireless communication used to track objects with an embedded RFID chip.

IATA considers RFID tracking to be a more cost-efficient method to achieve the industry’s target of 100% bag tracking. And at its Annual General Meeting (AGM) adopted a resolution supporting the global deployment of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) for baggage tracking.

“Passengers want to arrive with their bags. And on the rare occasion when that does not happen, they want to know exactly where their bag is,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO, “Deploying RFID and adopting modern baggage messaging standards will help us to cut mishandlings by a quarter and recover bags that are mishandled more quickly.”

While fewer lost bags will make airline customer happy, the push for RFID tracking move isn’t entirely altruistic.

While the industry has already seen a 46.2% cut in the annual cost of baggage mishandling due to better tracking, IATA estimates industry-wide adoption of RFID bag tracking will see a return on investment of over $3 billion to the industry.

Smoother travel for passengers with disabilities

1 billion people – 15% of the world’s population – live with some form of disability.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says this number is increasing due to aging populations, the spread of chronic diseases, better measurement tools and refinements in the definition of what constitutes a disability.

Of course, people with disabilities are also travelers. An Open Doors Organization (ODO) market study from 2015 found that adults with disabilities spend $17.3 billion annually on their own travel.

ODO notes that since these individuals typically travel with one or two other adults, the economic impact is at least doubled, to $34.6 billion.

But air travel poses a myriad of challenges for people with disabilities.

For example, between December 4 and December 31, 2018 (the first month the Department of Transportation required airlines to track this category) major U.S. carriers mishandled more than 700 wheelchairs and scooters, more than 2% of the 32,229 mobility devices loaded on airplanes.

“That’s 25 people a day who may have been stranded, unable to work or participate in a family activity,” explains Chris Wood of Flying Disabled.

Noting that improving the air travel experience for people with disabilities is not only “the right thing to do,” but good for business, IATA also passed a resolution committing airlines worldwide to ensuring that passengers with disabilities have access to safe, reliable and dignified travel.

The industry trade group said its aim is to change the focus “from disability to accessibility and inclusion” by bringing the travel sector together with governments to “harmonize regulations and provide the clarity and global consistency that passengers expect.” 

The resolution has the ability to enhance the passenger experience not only for people who currently have disabilities, but also for those in years to come, said Eric Lipp, Founder and Executive Director of Open Doors Organization.

“Most importantly,” said Lipp, “This is the first time IATA has recognized this on an international level. And this is in good timing with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Globally the time is right.”

Free ice-skating + free bag drop service at Denver Int’l Airport

Free ice-skating is back at Denver International Airport. DEN has also added a free early bag drop service.

The free ice-skating rink at Denver International Airport’s outdoor plaza is back again for its third season.

The rink is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily through January 6 on the DEN Plaza between the main terminal and Westin hotel.

Even better, there’s no need to travel with your own skates.  The “Skate Shop” Airstream trailer located on the plaza has free skate rentals in many sizes.  For those who don’t want to skate, but just want to hang out, there are bleachers and lounge seating.

A partnership this year with United Airlines, the DEN ice rink will feature music each day and offer free hot chocolate and cider starting at noon on Fridays. There will also be special appearances and performances on the ice every Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. including curling lessons and mascot appearances.

“Ice skating on our pop-up ice rink has quickly become a signature event for Denver International Airport,” said CEO Kim Day. “It’s just another way we’re demonstrating our commitment to an improved passenger experience. For flight crews, travelers, employees and even local residents, skating with the dramatic backdrop of the Jeppesen Terminal is becoming a seasonal tradition.”

Denver International Airport recenty introduced another helpful amenity:  free early bag drop and check-in service at the Transit Center and at the Pikes Peak and Mt. Elbert shutttle parking lots.

The bag-drop service allows passengers to drop off their bags, check-in and get a boarding pass before entering the terminals luggage-free.

At the parking lots, travelers can drive in and drop off  their bags before they park. A greeter at the bag drop kiosk will remove the bags from the car, complete the check-in process process and print out a boarding pass. That means no luggage to drag onto and off of the shuttle van to the terminal. Nice!

Keep in mind, that bags must be dropped off at least 90 minutes before a flight. And while the bag drop service is free, those pesky airline baggage fees will still apply. But those fees can be paid at the bag drop locations too.

The DEN bag-drop service is being offering at the Transit Center daily from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m and at the shuttle parking lots Saturday–Thursday  from 2 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Friday from 2 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Passengers traveling on domestic flights with Southwest, United, Delta and American Airlines are eligible to use the service. Flights to international destinations are not eligible for the bag drop service.

Find more details about the new bag drop service at Denveral International Airport here.

In a press release, Denver International Airport claims this is the first such service at an airport. But in 2012 Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport introduced early bag drop service at its East Economy parking lot and at the PHX SkyTrain Station, expanding the service to the rental car center in 2014.

Unfortunately, PHX no longer offers early bag drop service. But here’s hoping it comes back.

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.

Go ahead, check that bag. Chances are good it will arrive.

 

Go ahead, check that bag.

On many airlines it may cost you a fee, but the good news is that airlines and airports are getting better at getting your bag to its destination.

According to the SITA Baggage Report 2017, in 2016 the rate of mishandled bags was 5.73 bags per thousand passengers.  That’s down 12.25 percent from the previous year and is the lowest ever recorded.

This, despite a spike in the number of passengers, which last year hit an all-time high of 3.77 billion.

According to SITA, since 2007, the rate of mishandled baggage worldwide has fallen 70 percent, due to investment in technologies and processing improvements by both airlines and airports.

SITA promises more improvements over the next 18 months as the majority of the world’s airlines (those that belong to IATA, the International Air Transport Association) have adopted a resolution requiring every piece of checked baggage to be tracked along its journey by June 2018.

“We are on the brink of a new era in airline baggage management because the world’s airlines are committing to track baggage throughout its journey,” said Ilya Gutlin, SITA President, Air Travel Solutions in the report, “This requires data capture, management and sharing across airlines, airports and ground handlers giving a better view of where each piece of luggage is at every stage.”

Once IATA Resolution 753 becomes the accepted rule in June 2018, every bag must be tracked and recorded at four mandatory points: at check-in; aircraft loading; at transfer between carriers; and on arrival as the bag is delivered back to the passenger.

When that system is in place, says IATA, airlines will be able to share the information with their passengers and code share partners allowing them to track their bag, just like a parcel.

Mishandled baggage isn’t just a bummer for passengers. Wayward bags cost airlines money.

SITA’s report shows that in 2016 airlines spent $2.1 billion on recovering and reuniting passengers with their bags.