On August 10, 2006, British police foiled a terrorist plot to blow up 10 trans-Atlantic flights to the United States. That was the good news. The bad news for travelers all over the world was an immediate ban on all liquids and gels in carry-on baggage. Millions of passengers were forced to either toss their toiletries before boarding their flights or to stow them in their checked luggage.
The result: a 30% increase in checked baggage and a mountain of extra work for baggage handlers. In terms of both people and equipment, the airlines weren't prepared for the sudden jump in volume. They ended up having to pay a lot in overtime to deal with the surge in checked baggage, reports David A. Castelveter, spokesperson for the Air Transport Association of America (Washington, D.C.). The ATA represents the aviation industry before Congress and other governmental bodies. To keep bags and conveyors moving, he adds, the airlines had to reassign some line maintenance people who would normally change airplane tires, or maintain the ground equipment that hauls baggage.
Such demand for more capacity and better security is only the latest development to force new baggage handling technology into airports. Airports and airlines that have used the opportunities presented by these projects to improve throughput, rather than just pay lip service to the new requirements, are finding side benefits when it comes to material handling, including better asset utilization.
The size of the airport doesn't determine the quality of baggage handling operations. Two airports on both ends of the size spectrum have taken impressive measures to satisfy the need for customer safety and convenience: Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and Burbank's Bob Hope Airport.
Seattle-Tacoma has 11 miles of conveyor that serves the 30 airlines. Conveyors carry bags down from the ticketing level and feed them through explosive detection machines. Then the bags go to carousels where airline personnel place the bags onto carts and take them to the airplanes.
In 2004, Seattle-Tacoma completed a major capital improvement project adding a new concourse with 14 gates. The project incorporated a more expansive conveyor system to accommodate extra explosive detection machines. The new conveyor is basically the same as what they were using before except the new explosive detection system requires positive control of the bags throughout their entire length of travel, which is accomplished via bar code readers.
The material handling challenge here is that multiple airlines share a common system, which requires discipline from management and labor. All bags are sorted to a big circular carousel.
"The carriers were accustomed to having bags stay on that carousel until the time they needed to load a departing flight," says Jeff Fitch, director of public safety and security for the Seattle Tacoma International Airport. "The problem with that is if an airline starts checking in bags four hours before departure, you'll build up the bags on that carousel. If you have other carriers needing to use that carousel in the interim, you end up with jams, with way too many bags on it."
With the new system carriers agreed to assign enough people to take bags off the common carousel and either stack them someplace or load them into carts. The airport also hired additional staff to monitor the situation and actively manage the airlines' use of the baggage handling system.
The Five Star Airport Alliance (Carrollton, Texas), a provider of baggage handling systems and terminal services, was a major player on the Seattle Tacoma project. Mike Malkowski, president and CEO, says the project would have given the airport enough additional capacity to carry it far into the future, however, the new carry-on guidelines may mean that it will reach capacity much sooner.
To solve the capacity problem, Malkowski says manufacturers of explosive screening equipment need to develop machines that will screen 12-15 bags per minute instead of eight bags per minute. Of course the airports would then have to make the necessary investments.
"The airports would like more throughput without more equipment," says Malkowski. "That means we have to find a way to run the equipment faster and sort faster."
Right now pushers and diverters are the most common sortation method. Higher line speeds would mean that the diverters contact bags faster and harder, which could increase damage. (See sidebar, "Kinder, Gentler Handling.")
Joseph Tiberi, a spokesperson for the International Association of Machinists, isn't worried as much about what happens at the larger airports, as he is at those operations that use smaller aircraft that are loaded by hand.
"With the heavier bags and packages we need to ensure they have belt loaders and the proper equipment that's standard on larger aircraft," he says. "As the weight of the luggage increases we need to make sure the work is not only done efficiently but safely so the worker isn't injured in lifting these larger loads."
Fast charging technology supports extra volume
Burbank's Bob Hope Airport is smaller than Seattle Tacoma, but like that airport, it had already begun to make infrastructure improvements before the recent terror plot. In fact, a large part of its baggage handling infrastructure is brand new.
"We actually started building new space at this airport in anticipation of coming requirements before the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was formed," says Victor Gill, director of public affairs for Bob Hope Airport. "One of the reasons we got some of the priority deliveries of the InVision 9000 EDS was because we had already committed to the extensive space construction and design and installation of the complex conveyor systems themselves. With the recent dramatic increase in checked luggage, I don't know where we would have been had we not had those systems installed."
The airport's resources have been stretched, but the high-speed conveyors are designed to handle high volumes. Another strategy the staff at Bob Hope has applied to improve material handling is fast charging of its ground support equipment. The initial goal was to improve and monitor the energy usage of its tuggers and baggage movers. The fast charging systems supplied by Aerovironment PosiCharge (Monrovia, Calif.) have reportedly helped it keep vehicles with heavier service requirements in service longer.
"The most practical value of fast charging, once you take into consideration all the values of electric, is it has shorter charge times," says Ryan Gibson, ground support equipment product manager for Aerovironment. "The vehicles are getting more use, carrying more weight and having to operate for longer periods of time because of increased loads. If this airport hadn't had fast charging, it would have had to adjust its charging procedures, and add more equipment and batteries."
Burbank has also instituted a fleet management program through which it can monitor the vehicles and the amount of electricity they use. Being able to assess the amount of energy each airline consumes, by kilowatt hours, allows airport managers to more accurately determine each airline share of the reimbursement cost for electricity.
While bar codes are used at most airports today, a few like Hong Kong International and Las Vegas's McCarran Airport are using baggage tags incorporating both bar coded and RFID encoded data.
Cost has been the biggest barrier to using RFID at airports. Typically, the hardware has to be permanently installed. That's why RFID vendors are working on making readers more mobile in these environments, which would mean less redundant equipment. Standards will also bring the cost down, says Gerald McNerney, senior director of transportation, distribution and logistics solutions for Symbol Technologies (Holtsville, N.Y.). "Everybody has embraced the EPC Gen 2 standard," he says. "That means vendors are building off a common platform." The bag tag system at McCarran has both a bar code and an RFID tag inlay. This tag can be used at any airport, he says, because it enables a variety of data capture techniques, including human readable.
Why are Hong Kong and McCarran so heavily invested in RFID when other airports are waiting for costs to go down? McNerney says Hong Kong and McCarran had business requirements that allowed them to make the investment. Hong Kong handles a lot of loads going from one plane to another, which they have to do accurately and quickly. McCarran is more of a destination airport, but it is tying in its baggage handling processes with the local casinos. That means customers can check their bags all the way through to their hotels.
FKI Logistex (St. Louis) is also working with airports to apply RFID. Its CrisBag baggage tote handling and storage system enables point-to-point bag transport at 20 feet per second with a track-and-trace system in which the bag stays in a tote from check-in to discharge. Don Anderson, manager of airport systems for FKI, says the system has already been adopted in Europe and Asia.
"Instead of RFIDing a bag, the tote is tagged, so it has a discrete property and everything is checked with the tote," he says. "Where baggage comes in all different sizes and shapes, this is a more accurate way to use RFID."