MIAMI – As air travel demand slowly returns to pre-pandemic levels, airlines and airports are rethinking almost every aspect of flying — including how to handle baggage.

The Internet of Things (IoT) has emerged as an invaluable tool for building a better airport baggage system. Here’s how the technology has changed these systems so far and how future developments may transform handling in the near future.

Photo: John Huston/Airways

Baggage Handling Errors Hurt Airlines, Airports and Customers

Almost every airport is large and complex, and the baggage systems they use to transport traveler luggage are no exception. Their complexity makes loss a natural part of moving suitcases.

According to data from IT services provider SITA, airlines mishandled around 3.5 bags per 1,000 passengers in 2020. Mishandling includes bags that are lost, damaged, or otherwise not transferred correctly from point of origin to destination.

The number of missing or mishandled bags has steadily fallen over the past few decades. Between 2003 and 2016, the number of lost bags per traveler fell by more than 70%. However, any piece of lost or damaged luggage can be devastating for a passenger. 

This is especially true if the luggage is particularly important, such as a mobility aid like a cane or wheelchair. These damaged items can’t necessarily be repaired or replaced easily. This means that minimizing bag damage without sacrificing efficiency is often a top priority for airlines and airports. 

New systems that help reduce baggage mishandling can improve customer experience, reduce costs for airlines and make systems more efficient. This allows companies to more effectively manage the complexity of bag handling.

Photo: John Huston/Airways

How IoT Can Transform an Airport Baggage System

IoT technology can track baggage at every step of its journey, helping airlines prevent loss and collect essential information on the overall performance of their handling systems. There’s no industry-standard solution yet, but several different approaches are currently in use. 

One of the most popular and cost-effective strategies has been adopting RFID and IoT RFID readers. Distributing RFID readers throughout handling systems — for example, at important checkpoints or entry and exit points for luggage — allows airlines to track the movement of baggage through the system. 

The reader can continuously scan for nearby RFID tags, providing airlines with the approximate location of every tagged piece of luggage. Plus, it also can provide feedback on how efficiently the system operates.

Smart RFID readers can transmit this information to the cloud, where it is processed and passed directly to passengers via an app or online portal. Some airlines are investing in more expensive but more reliable systems. Air France uses internet-connected “eTags” that continuously track and report the location of bags they are attached to. Passengers can see where their luggage is in real-time using an online app.

Chicago O’Hare Airport this Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Photo: Kendrick Dlima/Airways

Using IoT for Predictive Maintenance and Remote Monitoring

Other devices can be dedicated to tracking the performance and condition of baggage handling system hardware. For example, most rely on a few different types of conveyors. These belts rely on various roller components — including bearings, axles, sprockets, and the rollers themselves. 

High-quality components can ensure a system moves luggage quickly and smoothly and lasts as long as possible, but all equipment fails eventually. Failure will mean downtime, maintenance costs, and knock-on effects like damaged or delayed luggage. Delayed items may be more likely to become lost in the system, and damaged pieces always mean trouble for airlines.

IoT monitors and sensors installed on essential equipment can track relevant operational variables — like equipment temperature, vibration, and timing. These devices can deliver this information continuously to the cloud, making it accessible to managers with system access, no matter where they are. 

This means these devices can provide a real-time remote monitoring system, offering businesses a window into equipment performance and health without the need for a physical inspection.

These remote monitoring systems can also use IoT data for automatic alerts, automatically notifying managers or technicians when a machine’s operating variables move outside of safe or expected bounds. 

Photo: John Huston/Airways

Data From the Internet of Things Can Power Predictive Maintenance

Over time and with enough data from their IoT system, businesses can take advantage of AI to implement predictive maintenance. This new strategy uses AI-powered forecasting algorithms and IoT data to predict when machines will fail or need care. 

Predictive maintenance platforms provide insight into the performance and health of airport baggage system equipment — as well as an advanced notice on potential failures. These systems can help significantly reduce downtime and maintenance costs while making machinery last longer. 

Airlines can develop baggage systems that are better at moving luggage with less risk of mishandling with greater reliability.

The same IoT systems that track and report machine performance may also help businesses track luggage. Timing information could help an airline model the flow of luggage through the entire baggage handling system — allowing it to more easily spot potential bottlenecks or problem areas where mishandling is more likely to occur.

Photo: João Pedro Santoro/Airways

IoT Technology Could Make Mishandled Luggage a Thing of the Past

Despite improvements in baggage handling systems, it’s still not uncommon for lost, damaged, or otherwise mishandled baggage while in transit. High rates of this can negatively impact airlines, airports, and travelers. 

New IoT technology may help businesses reduce the frequency of baggage mishandling. Airlines can use IoT to prevent lost or damaged baggage by tracking luggage as it moves through the handling system or by monitoring handling hardware performance.

These systems could help make baggage transfers much more reliable as travelers return to airlines. It’s vital to instill confidence in the industry as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and people navigate the new normal. Every little thing that does this will go a long way.

Featured image: Francesco Cecchetti/airways