The COVID-19 pandemic devastated the air transport industry, with passenger numbers plunging and pressure to redesign operations to meet changing travel regulations. While many airlines and airports have focused on managing the passenger process to meet the new health requirements, baggage processing has also been impacted. As the industry works toward recovery, we spoke to Peter Drummond, Director of Baggage, to hear his thoughts on the impact the pandemic will have on the baggage process.
2020 turned into an unrecognizable year for the air transport industry. How was baggage impacted by COVID-19?
Despite reduced workforces at airports and airlines globally, the per capita mishandled bag rate continued to decline (3.5 per thousand passengers in 2020). A significant reduction in long-haul flights meant fewer transfer bags, which historically account for most mishandled bags. Fewer passengers and flights also made getting bags to the plane an easier task, with less chance of disruptions.
However, the time taken to resolve mishandled bag files has increased due to reduced resources dedicated to bags, an area that will need to be monitored carefully as passenger volumes recover.
What is SITA doing to help the industry prepare for a return of passenger volumes?
In some geographies, domestic travel volumes have already returned to near pre-pandemic levels, but many airlines and airports simply do not have the staff that they used to have, and this can affect the ability to manage bags in the same way.
Our customers are therefore looking for greater automation and self-service, and this is where SITA has been preparing. We launched our new WorldTracer® Self-Service application to help our customers do more with less staff and to do so in a safe environment. We’re also investing in automation using the data available to track at more touchpoints.
We saw that where we track bags at check-in and loading, the mishandling rate dropped by 60%. That is significant. Now imagine if you could track across all four of the main touchpoints: check-in, loading, transfer, and arrival? The reduction in mishandling would be immense.
What is the biggest opportunity for the industry when it comes to baggage – what challenges need to be addressed?
One area of opportunity is around regional airports, which are playing an outsized role in the post-pandemic recovery. With the onerous requirements around health documentation for most international travel, we see domestic travel growing faster. This along with demographic shifts to smaller cities, regional airports need to scale their operations to meet growing demand. This includes baggage.
So we have launched a new product called SITA Bag Manager Lite. With its cloud-based technology, customers can implement a baggage reconciliation system (BRS) and access it with a web-enabled device from anywhere and anytime via the Internet – there is no need for dedicated equipment or connections.
What are the key technologies set to influence baggage in the next few years?
Technology has been fundamental in driving down the cost of managing baggage as well as the mishandling rates. Between 2007 and 2020, the mishandling rate per thousand passengers has reduced by 81%, from 18.88 bags to 3.5 bags. The question is, how can we build on that success to get closer to zero mishandled bags?
There is a demand from the industry to make a step-change — to really reduce the total costs of managing a bag and further reduce the chance of a bag being mishandled. Therefore, I see the potential for another round of innovation. What if we now tracked bags using the latest AI technology? We’re exploring a future where the utopia at some point could be; no bag tags, no bag tag printers, and much cheaper readers allowing data on bag whereabouts to be acquired and used in management systems at a much lower cost.
We have made already made huge strides and we were excited to partner with customers to trial new solutions to reduce costs through innovative technologies like SITA Bag Vision. Currently in the trial phase, SITA Bag Vision uses artificial intelligence-powered computer vision technology to match images of a bag captured at check-in and during sortation, eliminating the need for a bag tag in identifying bags. Plus, early trials show that it can be as accurate as traditional bag readers used in airports today. We continue to develop this solution, as the results so far are promising.
As a bonus Peter, you’ve recently returned from holiday. Have you got a top baggage tip you often share?
Like all travelers, I feel frustrated when I arrive at my destination, and my bag fails to appear on the baggage conveyor belt. Transfers, when you change from one plane to another, pose the greatest risk of a bag being mishandled, so I always ensure that when I’m traveling with bags, I check that there’s enough time for both me and my baggage to make the connecting flight. Also make sure you remove old tags and barcodes from your bag. Similarly make sure that the tag on your bag is properly placed so that the barcode is easily read by the baggage scanners. This will prevent your bag placed on the wrong flight or rejected by the baggage system.
To help speed up the reconciliation process in the event your bag is delayed, it’s a good idea to have your name and telephone number on a baggage label inside your bag. It can also be helpful to take a picture of your bag when you’ve finished packing – both open and closed. That way, if the bag goes missing, you have something to show the agent trying to trace it for you.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated digitalization projects, with a concerted and unified push towards self-service and touchless technologies and operations. Three-quarters of airports and airlines are prioritizing touchless bag tagging options that rely on kiosks and passengers’ mobile devices. Read our 2021 Baggage IT Insights report for more on this and other trends.