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If history is our guide, then COVID-19 will improve airport baggage check-in

June 01, 2020

By Matt Colby

Tragedies like Air India Flight 182 and 9/11 changed air travel. How will our current pandemic modify baggage handling at airports?

Sometimes it takes a tragedy to effect real change. On June 23, 1985, Air India Flight 182 exploded over the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 329 passengers. The bombing was an act of terrorism and the largest mass killing in Canadian history – 268 of the passengers were Canadian citizens. The terrorists had managed to get a suitcase bomb onto the airplane without ever boarding it themselves. Prior to 1985, airports and airlines did not match bags with passengers before take-off, and once a bag was checked in, it would be loaded onto the airplane even if the passenger never got on board.

At the time, a process had already been developed to ensure that checked baggage traveled with the passenger. However, this process had been struggling to gain traction at airports for years. Within a few months of the bombing, this process—known today as passenger-baggage reconciliation—had been implemented in airports around the world.

In the wake of the tragic events that occurred on September 11, 2001, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was created. In Canada, the establishment of the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) quickly followed. Government mandates for airports in both the United States and Canada stipulated that all checked baggage must be inspected with explosives detection systems. The technologies and processes necessary to make this happen had been developed years earlier. In the years immediately following 9/11, airports across North America overhauled their baggage handling systems and began screening 100% of all checked baggage.

In the face of tragedy, we realize the need for change and we act.

Expect airports to invest in turning their existing check-in counters into self-service bag drops. (Credit: Self-service bag drop and photo by Glidepath)

Rethinking airport baggage check-in. Again

Few people saw this current crisis coming. We are fighting an invisible enemy. In this way, COVID-19 is not an unfamiliar challenge for those who have faced previous airport security threats. Experts are trying to find ways to detect a threat that, for the most part, none of us can see.

As was the case with previous tragedies that impacted air travel processes, the technologies and processes necessary to avoid and defeat COVID-19 in airports have likely already been developed. Right now, airports around the world are putting tremendous effort into identifying and evaluating ways that they can upgrade their infrastructure and change their processes to make air travel safer for everyone.

It is difficult to break free of long-established processes, especially at organizations as large and complex as the world’s major airports.

A truly touchless process

Baggage check-in is often the first stop for passengers entering an airport terminal. Many airports have already invested in self-service bag drops. Many versions of the self-service process allow passengers to check their bags without interacting with airline agents. First impressions are important. Providing a method for passengers to enter an airport and drop off their baggage while maintaining a proper social distance will be crucial to instilling confidence in the safety of the air travel process for a world that will begin to venture back into the skies. Expect airports to invest in turning their existing check-in counters into self-service bag drops.

That step alone will not be enough. Even when checking their own bags, passengers must still enter information by interacting with a touchscreen kiosk to print their bag tags and send their baggage on its way. This requires touching the same surfaces as your fellow passengers.

What airports are now striving to achieve at baggage check-in is a truly touchless process. This will be the most difficult challenge. Here are some of the ways in which we will overcome that challenge.

Radio-frequency identification tags consist of a small chip and an antenna that carry and transmit data respectively. Here’s what a touchless baggage check-in process could look like. (Credit: Infographic by Gustavo Cadar).

Mobile devices as air travel remote controls

In 2019, San Francisco International Airport became the first airport to deploy a new cloud-based solution for an airport environment that will theoretically provide the ability to allow passengers to use their personal mobile devices as “remote controls for air travel.”

The goal of this type of cloud-based solution is to provide a fully mobile passenger walkthrough of the airport, allowing the use of a personal device as the driver for every step of the airport journey.

Physical contact with a kiosk touchscreen would no longer be necessary. The passenger would interact with a kiosk using their mobile device to print their bag tags. At the self-service bag drop, the passenger would use their phone to input information and send their baggage on its way.

Replacing touch with your face, your movement, and your voice

Developments in biometrics over the last decade have been nothing short of astounding. Our mobile devices and personal computers can now recognize us by our unique physical attributes.

Facial recognition already plays a part in many airport journeys, and now we can expect it to be utilized in more of the individual steps in that journey, beginning with baggage check-in. It is the ideal way for you to let an airport kiosk know who you are without touching anything.

Airports are also investigating the use of gesture-based and voice-based technology. The nature and state of this technology could prove difficult to calibrate and use successfully, but the current need for it in the design of a touchless environment may well drive technology companies to refine it to become more accurate and intuitive.

Personal, permanent RFID bag tags

What if we could skip the step of printing bag tags entirely? Around the world, airlines have been printing single-use paper bar code bag tags for decades. In 2018, the air transport industry reportedly printed over two million kilometers of paper bag tags, costing roughly $400 million US.

There has been a better option waiting to be implemented on a global scale for quite a long time—one that, for many years, airline industry professionals and air travel organizations have been trying to popularize. Radio-frequency identification tags, commonly referred to as RFIDs, consist of a small chip and an antenna that carry and transmit data respectively. In the few airports where RFID tracking is used for passenger baggage, these chips are embedded in the paper bag tags, which is very costly, and still requires that the tags be installed on the bag at the airport.

If RFID scanning technology were to be implemented in airports around the world, you would only ever need to attach one permanent RFID bag tag to each piece of baggage that you travel with. Many suitcase manufacturers now produce their baggage with inlays designed specifically to hold RFID tags. You would never need to print and interact with bag tags at an airport again. Since the tags can be read by RFID scanners without line of sight, they are much easier to track within a baggage system than a paper bag tag and would also result in fewer lost bags for passengers.

It would require a significant investment for large airports to retrofit their entire baggage handling systems with RFID scanners. Despite the many benefits, the incentives have not been enough to outweigh the cost for most airports. Until now.

How will the COVID-19 pandemic change the way airports deal with baggage handling?

The mother of invention

There has never been a better time for innovation. It is difficult to break free of long-established processes, especially at organizations as large and complex as the world’s major airports. We are witnessing, perhaps for the first time in our generation, a unified global realization that we need to do things differently.

There is always room for improvement, but there are windows of time in history when impediments to that improvement are removed and the time is right to adapt, grow, and become more resilient. This is one of those windows of time. Let’s take stock of the technology and processes that are available to us, utilize them for positive change, and emerge from this crisis stronger than we were going into it.

  • Matt  Colby

    Focusing mostly on his work as a baggage handling systems consultant, Matt makes sure that our luggage gets where it’s supposed to go. He’s also worked in the industrial, automotive, food and beverage, pharmaceutical, and commercial sectors.

    Contact Matt
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