November 19th 2004. I set foot on the SFO airport with my wife of 2 months. After we completed all the immigration formalities, we waited for our baggage to arrive. But our luggage was nowhere in sight. And when it finally arrived, it came in a big broken box generously provided by the security agencies. There was a police dog that was very interested in the items. We wanted to really scoot out of the place. But we had to wait for another suitcase of ours that hadn’t arrived yet.
We waited and waited. After an hour when everyone else had departed, we went to the airport agents and enquired. They asked me the details of my bag and told me helpfully that my bag is in Singapore. The Air India tag on the bag had come off. So they did not know where to load it. All my office clothes were in that suitcase. Needless to say I did not make a great first impression on the first two days at the office. And the wife was not amused either. Two days later the baggage arrived at our home in Fremont California with everything intact.
More recently, I made a quick trip to Atlanta last month. Since, I work on airport baggage handling and baggage reconciliation projects, I get to see firsthand how these things are done. The thing with bags is that, once you check them in, you have no idea what happens to them.
After the check-in, the bag goes through a security screening, much like the passengers. The good thing with bags is that they don’t need a passport! However, it is always a good idea to keep your bags unlocked or use TSA locks on them. The security folks are well within their rights to open a bag and go through them. So if you don’t want a broken bag, you better don’t lock it tight.
After screening, the bag goes through a baggage sorting system. The sortation system can be very sophisticated in large airports like London Heathrow or downright simple in smaller airports. The sortation system identifies which bag needs to go into which flight. In large airports where flights take off every minute, this becomes an extremely complex affair and calls for heavy automation. In smaller airports this can be handled manually.
Once the bag has passed through the sortation system, it is ready to get reconciled. This means that an agent will scan the bag and, in a sense, confirm that the bag has got into its respective flight. This is an important part of airport management system as it gives the status on where the bag is. If the bag is not scanned, people do not recognize that it has ‘boarded’ the flight.
Then the agents take the bags to the hull of the aircraft in containers. There’s logic in which bags get into which containers. This depends on whether the bags need to get transferred to the next aircraft or whether they would actually reach the destination and so forth. Apart from this, it is also important to look at the weight and balance of the aircraft. This has significant impact on the efficiency of the aircraft when flying. All of these feed into which bag gets into which container. That is the reason why when we are waiting to pick up our bags, we see a single lot of bags come through at a time. All bags from one container would have got unloaded.
Speaking of transfers, most international travel requires us to take a second or third flight before we reach our destination. While we fret on the whole process of boarding cards, security and gates, our bags also go through the same process. When they move from one flight to another, they need to go through the whole process of the airport baggage handling system again – screening, sortation and reconciliation.
It is little wonder that a lot of bags do get mishandled. In 2009, the Airline Industry mishandled about 25 million bags. Each mishandled bag costs about 100 USD for re-flighting. That takes the total loss to about 2.5 billion dollars. 11 bags are mishandled for every 1000 passengers. But wait, if your bag is mishandled we have baggage tracing systems to trace them too! Only about 0.4 bags per 1000 passengers are actually lost.
It’s always good to travel light. And it’s better not to keep expensive items in your checked-in bags. I for one prepare myself mentally to lose a bag. But this time it was different. One of them had a green toy engine that my three year old son wanted very badly. I was visibly relieved when my bag appeared on the carousel. A disappointed three year old can be very tough to handle; especially after a long flight!