Mishandled bags cost the airlines money-lots of it.
According to SITA's most recent annual Baggage Report, there are approximately 6.5 mishandled bags per every 1,000 passengers, for a total of 23.1 million mishandled bags annually. Skift Magazine reports that baggage snafus cost the airlines an estimated $2.3 billion in 2015.
The challenge of tracking bags becomes even more complicated with interline bags that arrive on one airline and depart on another. As these bags transfer between airlines, they're also moving across the airport from one terminal to another, upping chances for mishandling along the way.
Even so, airlines are steadily improving their performance, with reductions in mishandled bags reported year over year. The recently adopted International Air Transport Association (IATA) Resolution 753 sets the stage for continued improvements in baggage handling by 2018, and tasks airlines to be able to track all baggage from start to finish.
Project: Interline Baggage Tracking System
Location: Los Angeles Int'l Airport
Annual Passengers: 30.6 million
Owner/Operator: Los Angeles World Airports
Baggage Handler: Aero Port Services
System Vendor: Brock Solutions
Software: SmartBag Tracking Solution
Implementation Began: Oct. 2015
Of Note: Software assists LAX's 53 airlines in complying with IATA Resolution 753 requirements
Specifically, Resolution 753 requires airlines to:
"This resolution basically demonstrates delivery of the bags when custody changes," summarizes Walter Vergara, chief marketing officer at Aero Port Services, the firm that provides interline baggage handling services for numerous airports, notably Los Angeles International and John F. Kennedy International.
Vergara notes that the requirements of Resolution 753 are a vast departure from what currently occurs at many airports-if handlers miss a baggage scan, there is a "gray area" of time when a bag's whereabouts are unknown. "A bag might be gone for 40 to 60 minutes, then show up somewhere else; or it could be misplaced completely and sent to a different location," he says. "With this new resolution, airlines will be required to keep constant track of that bag."
Airports such as Los Angeles International (LAX) are readying now for the upcoming change. On October 1, 2015, LAX launched Brock Solutions' SmartBag Tracking Solution, a cloud-based mobile application that allows baggage handlers to scan each interline bag transfer as it is picked up and dropped off. Currently, all 53 airlines at LAX use the system. With about 30.6 million passengers per year, baggage handlers at LAX transfer more than 250,000 bags per month.
Before adding the new system, Aero Port Services had relied on software from a different vendor for about five years. The baggage handling contractor had recently asked that vendor to submit a bid for a new contract when Aero Port Services officials heard about Brock's product, which was already operating in other terminals at the airport.
"Their software [Brock's SmartBag Tracking Solution] was a little bit more daring for the future we knew was coming," explains Vergara. "It worked in real time, so the airlines can know in real time where their bags are. It would have taken our current vendor a fair amount of time just to catch up to where Brock's solution was at."
Because LAX and Aero Port Services had an existing software system in place, they had to clear a few hurdles before transitioning to Brock's. "It would have gone a lot smoother if we weren't already working with another company," Vergara acknowledges.
Given the circumstances, the organizations chose to implement the new software gradually. "We had the system running Oct. 1, 2015, but some of the reports weren't available. They were phased in," explains Robert Enriquez, interline operations manager at Aero Port Services. "As we progressed into the first six months, different phases kicked in and more and more reports became available."
During the first phase, the team got the system running, which enabled 120 interline baggage ground handlers at LAX to scan bags and read baggage transactions in real time. "That's all we required at that time because we didn't give Brock all that much time to get it done," says Enriquez.
The second phase involved importing baggage source messages into the system and establishing a live data feed. This phase gave handlers access to inbound and outbound information on their mobile scanners. In the final phase, a business analytics tool became available, along with invoicing capabilities and an airline reporting function.
According to Enriquez, the phased approach worked well. "We deal with 53 airline clients," he remarks. "If everything had started online Oct. 1, it would have been overwhelming and I'd probably still be trying to catch everyone up with the system. The way it was done worked pretty well because everyone got to learn at their own speed.
Information is Power
In retrospect, Enriquez says that the previous system's biggest limitation was a lack of information. "All of the airlines are using multiple systems and none of those systems really communicate with each other. We could scan bags, but we didn't know what time the flights came in. There was a lack of information as far as BSMs [baggage source messages]," he explains. "The key benefit of the new system is that the more information the airlines and the baggage handlers have, the better the system is going to be."
Aero Port Services was attracted to Brock Solutions' experience (25 years in business, 10+ in the airport sector) as well as its SmartBag Tracking system, which allows baggage handlers to use a rugged mobile scanner to scan bag tags and view information about each bag. Now, handlers at LAX can check a bag's inbound flight number, the amount of time it has to make its connection and the assigned location for that bag's outbound flight. Armed with such information, handlers can make more informed decisions about the delivery of individual bags. In addition, each scan they perform creates a data point in the system's centralized SmartSuite database, which establishes a detailed transaction history for every piece of baggage that passes through LAX.
"Because the system tells how many minutes they have to get the bag to its destination, they can prioritize their work," explains Cliff Burchfield, who heads business development at Brock Solutions. "The system also keeps track of all information about each bag. We know who picked it up, when they picked it up and where they were. If there is ever an issue, an airline can look back up to five years. This information is helping airlines track down missing bags, which is more common than most people realize."
Access to such information aids planning. Dispatchers can be more proactive about inbound flights, notes Enriquez. On-screen information tells them how many bags are coming in, and how many are expected to come in hot (with less than 45 minutes to make their connection). "They are able to communicate that information into the field so that supervisors and drivers can make the necessary adjustments, whether it be waiting at a pickup point for a bag or going to the aircraft side to make sure we're getting these bags connecting," he explains.
The new system also helps when mistakes inevitably occur. If handlers miss-drop a bag, they immediately receive an error message. "In the past, we would have had to wait for the airline to advise us that it wasn't their bag," comments Enriquez. "Instead of being reactive, we're now able to be proactive and move bags as efficiently as possible."
In order for LAX's system to work as intended, Brock Solutions needed access to flight data and all the baggage source messages from the airlines. Currently, it receives flight information directly from OAG, the company that provides such data to airlines, government agencies and many travel-related businesses. Brock uses a variety of baggage source message feeds to receive all baggage information required for SmartBag Tracking to be effective.
The flight data provides crucial information about which flights are on time, which are delayed, which are going to be canceled, which passengers are rebooked, etc., explains Vergara.
The baggage source messages tell Aero Port Services' cart drivers the information they need to correctly transport bags for the airlines. With the new system at LAX, drivers know where the bags came from, where they have to go and how many minutes they have to connect. "They can make real-time decisions on how they're going to get that bag expedited to the airline," says Enriquez.
The new system provides a host of data for the airport, airlines and baggage handlers.
When baggage has been physically transferred and sorted, a baggage processed message is then sent to the system.
"These steps give the system an entire history of the bag as it traveled throughout LAX," Vergara remarks. "Now, baggage handlers know if there was a bag that was misconnected, and they are able to make corrections and resolve those problems. That is the biggest benefit of this system-it helps us make smarter decisions. It empowers key personnel to make the necessary decisions to make sure bags make it. The number of misconnects at LAX is reduced because we're all working together."
Airlines also have access to the system, so they can better track their bags, adds Enriquez. Specifically, carriers receive hot bag and missed bag reports. "If an airline wants to know, for example, how many of the bags APS (Aero Port Services) touched were misconnected, they can log in to the system, select the missed bag report for their airline, and see those bags," he says. "And, they can drill down further and see why they were missed."
Brock Solutions is in discussions with the various BHS operators at LAX to eventually integrate the SmartBag Tracking system with LAX's other software systems. By doing so, Burchfield says airlines will have a "complete story of all the bags at the airport, not just the transfer bags but the originating ones too. Once we interface with those other systems, we can start to understand the bag's entire journey from end-to-end."
The system's business analytics tool allows airlines and Aero Port Services to run specific reports. Enriquez uses it to run a bags-per-hour report, which helps him identify trends. He can see the number of bags handled per terminal, overall driver performance, how each driver's performance compares to peers (bags picked up and delivered correctly), and more.
Airlines, in turn, can pull reports to see average delivery times, where misconnected bags occur, etc. There's even a late delivery report that details bags delivered outside of the service level agreement between Aero Port Services and the airlines.
"There are so many different types of graphs, reports or charts you can create. It's just a matter of what you want to see," says Enriquez. "You can even customize reports based on your own specific needs. But it's all available within the business analytics tool."
He also leverages the reports for decision-making about issues such as staffing. If traffic in the Tom Bradley International Terminal is on the rise, he can add handlers accordingly. If traffic is trending down elsewhere, cuts can be made there. "It really helps improve our overall effectiveness," he reports. "There is no waste of manpower."
The airlines, Aero Port Services and airport meet monthly to review the data, with each carrier only privy to data about its own operations.