Ground handling operations in an airport: 3 major issues

Mishandled baggage is still a major pain point for airlines and ground handling operations in an airport. Where does it go wrong?
Ground handler moves suitcase onto conveyor belt, loading the aircraft.

Current status of ground handling operations

Ground handling operations support airlines with their local operations at airports, such as baggage services.

Some famous ground handlers include Swissport, AviaPartner, and Menzies. Being major players, they work for different airlines in airports around the world.

Swissport, for example, operates at more than 140 airports across 6 continents. In 2022 alone, they handled 3 million flights.

The local ground handler is in charge of taking baggage to the aircraft. 

The airlines try to keep track of your luggage during this process with Type-B messaging.

At the check-in counter and beyond: messages to track bags

The Departure Control System (DCS) is crucial in the baggage handling process. This system links the airlines’ reservation system with the passenger records.

When a bag is checked in, the handler uses the Departure Control System to ‘accept’ the baggage into the system. That’s the first step the handler takes while you are at the check-in counter.

Then — as we all know — the handler issues a bag tag and affixes it to your bag. This tag releases a Baggage Source Message (BSM) to inform the airport system of the bag’s itinerary.

Throughout the belt conveyors at the airport, the bag tag will be scanned by the arches installed inside the airport. This tracking system is called the Baggage Handling System (BHS). 

Every time a bag is scanned, a Baggage Processes Message (BPM) or tracking message is received. These are used to acknowledge that a bag has passed and enable effective routing.

The airport takes the bags to a specific place through the sortation system. The ground handlers can then pick them up and bring the bags to the aircraft.

To transport the baggage, ground handlers use either large containers or bulk loading.

Belt conveyor system transporting baggage at Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport.
Belt conveyor system transporting baggage at Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport.

Large containers or bag-per-bag? Transporting baggage across the airport

Once the bags are ready for loading at the conveyor belt, they get shipped to the aircraft.

Ground handlers will use Unit Load Devices (ULDs), or load every bag individually, also known as “bulk loading”.

The type of baggage loading mostly depends on the type of airlines.

Full-Service Carriers (FSC), such as Turkish Airlines or Qatar Airways, will often choose those large containers or ULDs.

They generally fly long distances, often with connecting flights. It’s easier to have the luggage in a big container and quickly transfer it from one aircraft to another

LCCs, such as Ryanair or easyJet, normally fly short-haul, with simple city-to-city operations.

LCCs don’t normally use ULDs but prefer to transport baggage in bulk because it can be cheaper or faster for short flights.

ULDs lined up at Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport
ULDs lined up at Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport

All bags on board? Getting more info with baggage reconciliation systems

Airlines will receive information about the journey of a bag through the airport’s Baggage Handling System. 

If they want to enrich this data, they can invest in Baggage Reconciliation Systems (BRS).

These systems are used to track baggage with portable devices that are carried by handlers. Every time a BRS reads a bar code, a baggage-processed message is sent.

BRS are systems that help airlines introduce baggage into the right ULDs, to avoid making mistakes. 

Bags categorized as “priority”, for example, need to be placed into a specific ULD. Or, if a passenger has a connecting flight, the responsible from the ground handling operations also has to put the bag in the correct ULD.

If the handler makes any mistake while sorting the bag, they receive an error on their BRS device screen. 

The warning message can be especially effective for baggage with connecting flights. This is where airlines record the highest mishandling rates for baggage.

Imagine for example the world’s largest airport hubs, such as Dubai, London Heathrow, Madrid, or Atlanta. in some of these airports, almost 50% of bags are destined for a connecting flight.

When the passenger arrives at the stopover, the ULD will be shipped to a specific location. This ensures that the baggage will find its way to the connecting flight.

A ground handler is getting the aircraft ready for loading baggage with a belt loader.
A ground handler is getting the aircraft ready for loading baggage with a belt loader.

The 3 biggest problems with ground handling operations in an airport. Innovation, please!

Issue 1: Lack of messaging

Those Baggage Processes Messages seem like a great idea to get information about the baggage journey, right?

Some airlines,  such as United Airlines, Qatar Airways, and Delta Air Lines, thought along the same lines. 

They decided to open up the Type-B message to their passengers. By converting them to a suitable format, such as XML, passengers can now locate their baggage.

So, what’s the issue? In reality, Type-B messages are legacy technology: 

  • These systems are not designed to be integrated with newer applications, so the options are limited.
  • Airlines (and passengers!) only receive messages at 4 baggage tracking points: check-in, load, transfer, and arrival. 
  • The service is not available on all passengers’ routes. So one flight passengers can track their bag, but on the next flight, they can’t.

Outdated technology, lack of tracking, and an inconsistent travel experience … the future of baggage tracking can and should look better!

Overview of Type-B messaging for ground handling operations in an airport.
Overview of Type-B messaging for ground handling operations in an airport. Customers receive incomplete information, as the system is not updated to connect with the passenger.

Issue 2: ULDs, bulk loading, and connecting flights

Did you know that the risk of mishandled luggage goes up 8 (!) times for connecting flights? And it doesn’t matter if airlines use ULDs or bulk loading. 

  • ULDs are not being tracked along their journey. So again, there are blind spots. 

As Zhi Yong Liao, Senior Manager, Cargo Safety & ULD at IATA, states: “It is still a pain point that often airlines don’t know where the ULDs are, especially when outsourced to the ground service provider.”

  • Bulk loading involves the time-intensive procedure of manually scanning every dag to trace its destination. This ensures tracking and control but, unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen. 

In short, bags should be tracked at every stage of the journey with real-time information. Only with a closed data tracking system can airlines ensure optimal baggage handling, and offer a sublime passenger experience.

Issue 3: Big investments, small results

The Baggage Reconciliation System seems like a great option to decrease the number of mishandled luggage.

But because of the high cost of implementing this technology, only big airports use BRS. Numbers show that over the next 9 years, the BRS system will only grow 10%.

As it only offers a partial and expensive solution to cover the baggage journey, it’s logical that not many airports are willing to invest.

Is a solution on the radar? Baggage tracking innovations for ground handlers and airlines

We wouldn’t raise these concerns if we didn’t also have a solution. 

We first worked for more than 6 months trying to design a solution using Type-B messages. 

Eventually, our experienced Engineering team found a technical way to convert messages using brokers like Shabstec Limited and Mobil Trackr.

However, we had to quickly temper our enthusiasm. 

In the end, it turned out that the problem came from the airlines. Without continuous information about the route network, we couldn’t proceed.

That’s why we decided to move to another solution: Bluetooth baggage tracking. 

Time to start rethinking baggage tracking. Enter: Bluetooth

Thanks to Bluetooth, Bob beat the challenges of legacy tech such as barcode scanning. 

Using Bluetooth, you don’t require line-of-sight. Airlines are capable of tracking 200 bags per second by introducing a Bluetooth tag inside the passenger’s bag.

A Bluetooth receiver placed within a radius of 100 meters can easily pick up the tag’s signal. This tracking method results in ultrafast, consistent, and live baggage information.

Where are we now?

We have designed a hardware ecosystem of gateway receivers for airport ground handlers. These receivers can be deployed in no time and require zero training. 

To provide a good tracking experience, we only need between 6-10 Bluetooth receivers for every flight operation, such as departure or arrival. 

We also designed this solution with two stakeholders in mind: airlines and passengers. 

Example of TravelTag dashboard, enabling both airlines and passengers with live Bluetooth baggage tracking information.
Example of TravelTag dashboard, enabling both airlines and passengers with live Bluetooth baggage tracking information.

Bluetooth tracking: live information for both passengers and airlines

Both airlines and passengers can access tracking information through a user-friendly dashboard. This provides peace of mind and an optimal baggage experience for your passengers.

In case of a delay, passengers will be able to instantly communicate with their airlines. As airlines already have access to the same tracking information, the recovery process can be greatly simplified.

The amount of data that we provide to airlines is overwhelming. We enable airlines with the exact longitude and latitude for highly accurate reporting.

This data is now also being considered for new Airline Industry Data Models (AIDM).

And airlines can associate every bag tag with a unique ID for easy and fast identification.

And then … it’s up to the airline to decide how they want to visualize the Bluetooth data and solve their challenges.

With customizable dashboards for reflighting, loading/offloading, automatically creating PIRs, connecting to tracing systems, and more, the options are endless.

Are you ready for Bluetooth baggage tracking with TravelTag? Get in touch with the Bob team today.

Get more information about Bluetooth baggage tracking solutions
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