Not that long ago, the problem of airlines losing checked bags was so pervasive, it gave rise to a joke in which an airline hijacker tells the pilot, “I demand you take me to where my luggage is going.”
But airlines and baggage system engineers are crediting advances in technology, both the kind passengers can see and the kind they cannot, with the lowest number of mishandled bags since 2005, when the Société Internationale de Télécommunications Aéronautiques (SITA), an airline-owned information technology company, started publishing an annual baggage report.
In 2011, 99.1 percent of the world’s air travelers retrieved their bags at the right place at the right time, SITA reported in April. That means just under nine bags per thousand passengers were mishandled, down from more than 18 bags per thousand passengers five years ago.
Since airlines began collecting fees for checked bags, more people are carrying their luggage on the plane, reducing some of the workload for airlines. At the same time, people who are paying to have their suitcases handled contributed $3.36 billion to American carriers in 2011, according to the Department of Transportation, and those passengers have high expectations.
“They’re explicitly paying for that bag to be carried from A to B, and they’re being charged for that,” said Nick Gates, who is responsible for baggage handling systems at SITA. “If I’m paying to have my bag carried, I have the right to think it’s going to arrive on time and at my destination.”
The process of moving bags may be one of the least appreciated aspects of air travel, some airline executives say. “When a passenger walks into an airport, there is a parallel universe directly under their feet,” said John McDonald, vice president of corporate communication at US Airways . It is not just the large number of bags and the short amount of time in which they must be processed, he said, but also the number of entities that are responsible for some part of the process.
A traveler may drop off a bag at the airport curb with a skycap, who may work for the airport, the airline or a third company. An airline worker takes the bag at the check-in counter and passes it to the Transportation Security Administration, which then sends it to the airline’s bag room to be distributed to the correct flight. And while the workers loading the bags on and off a plane can be airline employees, at many airports, they work for subcontractors.
“Generally, travelers take for granted what happens,” said Marc Michel, an executive with BCS, an airport logistics company based in New Zealand. “They see bags disappear at check-in and don’t have a clue what happens until it reappears at the other end.”
In its annual baggage report, SITA credited digital technology for contributing to the reduction in mishandled bags, citing specifically airlines’ ability to track suitcases from check-in to baggage claim. In the United States, Delta Air Lines has been a leader in this area. In a sweeping upgrade of its baggage handling capabilities at hubs in Atlanta and Los Angeles, Delta updated tag printers, bag readers and conveyor belts. A similar upgrade is planned for the expanded Delta terminal in New York. With an app, passengers can follow their bag’s progress on their smartphones.
“Having the right bar-code readers at critical points in the system assures they are read correctly,” said Morgan Durrant, an airline spokesman, adding that this was critical to properly directing bags. In the future, Delta plans to distribute the details on each bag to the mobile devices of airport workers, too.
Mr. Michel, whose company provides the technology for digital tracking of bags to the operators of Melbourne Airport in Australia, said the ability to distribute information on which bags were where meant airlines knew more quickly if bags had gone astray, and airports can gauge how well bags are moving through the system.
“A gate manager for an airline can see the status of the bags for their flight and understand how long a delay is going to be or whether they are going to depart on time or whether they’re going to hold that flight,” Mr. Michel said.
Airports have not always found success with new baggage handling technology. In 1993, problems with what was intended to be a fully automated system delayed the opening of Denver’s new airport for 16 months, a delay that cost about $500 million, said Richard de Neufville, a professor of engineering systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The whole facility was on ice,” he said. “Money was going out, but no money was coming in.”
More recently, there were problems with the baggage handling systems when new terminals opened at airports in London and Madrid. “It was an operational disaster for its first days of opening,” Dr. de Neufville said of Heathrow’s Terminal 5.
Still, the only area where bags were more likely to get lost last year than in previous years was during transfers from one flight to another.
“Nontransfer bags, we are pretty successful in getting those bags on the flight,” said Mr. Gates of SITA. Moving bags from one plane to another is a different story. With the trend in aviation toward routing more travelers through airline hubs, he said, there are more opportunities for error.
In the United States, airlines are further challenged by security regulations requiring that all baggage arriving in the country be scanned again before being transferred to another flight. This made the $19 million checked-baggage inspection system installed in Terminal A of Philadelphia International Airport particularly helpful, said Suzanne Boda, senior vice president for airport customer service at US Airways. In June, the airline reported its best month ever for operations, including bag handling, with mishandled bags reported by eight customers in a thousand, slightly lower than SITA’s global average.
The new US Airways equipment incorporates the kind of scanning and tracking features that package handlers like FedEx have been using for decades. “We put that in place and we saw a significant improvement in performance,” Ms. Boda said. “We know where those bags are at any given moment.”
That airlines and airports are just beginning to catch up with companies like FedEx and U.P.S. , which have been successfully sorting, distributing and delivering parcels for decades, should not be surprising, airline executives said, because of the differences in how the companies operate. Parcel delivery airlines can standardize equipment and procedures throughout their networks, while space and handling practices are unique to each airport used by passenger carriers.
“Every single step in the process can be controlled by a different entity,” said Arturo Garcia-Alonso, who manages airport technology at Airports Council International, a trade association. At the end of the day, technology only goes so far, he said: “It’s coordination of different entities that makes a real success.”