The rate of mishandled luggage has fallen significantly since 2007, but bags going astray still costs the industry huge sums each year and negatively affects customer satisfaction. SITA, the world's leading specialist in air transport communications and information technology, can help airlines keep luggage on track, flights on time and customers happy, as portfolio director Nick Gates explains.
A passenger stands in line for passport control, stretching out her neck after a long flight. As she waits, excited about her trip, she turns on her smartphone and checks her tracker app. It tells her that her suitcase hasn't left London. Confused and concerned, she finds an agent and asks for an explanation. He doesn't even know yet that the bag hasn't made it.
The very thought of such a scenario is enough to send chills down the spines of airline representatives and ground handlers alike. Yet, as passengers seek improved traceability for their luggage, with increasingly affordable tracking devices offering them the means to do so, it won't be long before unprepared airlines are faced with such conundrums on a regular basis.
The importance of up-to-date baggage information - and using it wisely - is therefore more important than ever. Airlines don't just need to stay a step ahead of passenger queries; they need to be able to pre-empt problems and ensure that delayed or mishandled bags are directed to where they need to go as soon as possible.
For Nick Gates, portfolio director at SITA, taking ownership of the available data by implementing the right technology is key to keeping baggage on track, costs down and customers happy. Specialising in air transport communications and information technology, SITA has been providing IT products to help airlines, airports and ground handlers better manage baggage for decades.
Gates explains why transfer baggage - which makes up a small proportion of the total bags handled but accounts for half of mishandled bags - is such a problem.
"Several factors are to blame," he says. "Delays on inbound flights can reduce the time baggage handlers have to direct bags and, while the passenger can run or be helped by the airline to get quickly from their inbound flight to the outbound flight, bags can't run - they have to be transported from where they arrive to where they've got to get to.
"Doing that quickly enough isn't always possible, or the airlines don't have the right information about which bags are coming in and going out, so it might be that the passenger makes the tight connection but the bag doesn't."
"Any time a bag is touched in an airport, there's an opportunity for something to go wrong," he adds, "and so the mere fact that a bag is transferring rather than going point to point means it's going to be touched twice as much, and there is more chance of things going wrong."
SITA's baggage management software can provide everything from bag-level information - where a particular bag is, where it's come from and where it's going - to a higher overview of flight problems so that informed decisions such as delaying outbound flights can be made. It also allows performance factors to be analysed - for example, reporting on the delivery times or mishandling rates of ground handlers at a particular airport. It's most fundamental function, though, is what Gates refers to as "baggage reconciliation".
"Our baggage reconciliation systems are there to make sure that the bag gets put on the right plane," Gates says. "They can also provide information about the bags that are transferring. For example, they can show how many bags from incoming flights need to transfer onto flights that are outbound in the next two hours, which of those have short - or 'hot' - connections and where are they are at that moment.
"We're not just providing data - we're providing intelligence so that ground handlers and airlines have a better view of what's going on within their operations at the airport. We can show them which bags need to be prioritised and which bags are never going to make their connection because the inbound flight is so late that the bags will miss the outbound flight.
"When that happens, there's no point chasing after those bags; the passenger needs to be booked onto a new flight, and you need to ensure their bags reach that flight."
SITA's WorldTracer, first developed 25 years ago at the request of IATA, continues to reunite customers with lost bags around the globe today. The software has evolved greatly over the years, but the premise remains much the same: feeding all the information that airlines, airports and ground handlers have about bags into a database and allowing them to exchange messages so that a bag found in Singapore can be matched with its owner in New York.
With smart use of the software, the bag can be redirected even before a passenger reports it missing, and it may simply be a case of informing him or her upon thier arrival that the bag will arrive on the next flight in an hour's time.
SITA is also constantly working to make its services more helpful for customers and airlines.
"We're investing greatly in improving the features of WorldTracer to mobilise our offering to include a tablet service so that agents can support passengers next to the baggage arrivals carousel instead of the passenger having to go to them," Gates says. "That makes it a more friendly experience."
In improving core products such as WorldTracer, SITA continues to work closely to fulfil IATA's ambitions for the industry and stays abreast of upcoming trends, such as print-at-home or electronic bagtags.
One of its main focuses currently is educating airlines about Resolution 753, a new regulation from IATA coming into force in 2018 that will require airlines to better track and monitor arrival and departure bags. Airports can play an important role here by providing the infrastructure to provide better baggage tracking, particularly with regard to arrivals.
"Most airports and airlines have been spending money to make sure they know what's going on with departing bags, while arriving bags have been something of a poor relation in terms of investment," Gates says. "Resolution 753 attempts to redress this balance; it is vital that everybody involved in the processing of bags, understands the implications of the new resolution."
"Airlines and airports need to be aware that while the resolution might be three years away, they need to start making plans now to ensure that they will be able to meet the requirements.
"As an airline today, 10% of your stations might be ready and 90% might not. We can help you understand how prepared you are by carrying out analyses of the airports you fly to and finding out what information is obtainable from baggage systems there. We're also working with airports to make sure that they can provide the services that the airlines will require."
Managing customer expectations is another important concern. SITA's BagJourney, part of WorldTracer, builds up a view of a bag's journey and allows subscribed airlines to search the database for bag information. This plays a vital role in helping airlines to redirect mishandled bags efficiently, but it also allows airlines to offer passengers the option of receiving real-time information about their bags.
"As a passenger, you hand over your baggage to the airline and you have to hope that it makes it to the destination," begins Gates. "Let's say you are going to Barbados to get married; it's incredibly important that your clothes get there at the same time as you. So people want to know what's going on with their bags, and we're seeing this more. Last time we did a survey, something like 66% of passengers wanted this information."
Currently, one or two US airlines provide an equivalent service, but it has not been widely adopted. For most airlines, when information regarding a mishandled bag does need to be shared with a passenger, timing is an important consideration.
"The general consensus is that you don't tell passengers before they get on the plane, and you might not want to tell them before the flight's departed," Gates says. "But you should tell passengers when they get off the plane because it allows them to get used to the idea, rather than waiting around the baggage carousel for a bag that is not going to arrive anytime soon."
As passenger technology develops and personal bag-tracking devices, whether provided by airlines or purchased by passengers, become more widespread, such measured release of information may soon be out of the hands of airline agents.
Far from being the problem, however, such data can ultimately contribute to the solution, provided that comprehensive and sophisticated software is in place to help operators proactively direct baggage as required to meet passengers' concerns, whenever - and wherever - they arise.
SITA is the number one ICT provider of integrated IT business solutions and communication services for the air transport industry. SITA works closely with every sector of the air transport community, innovating, developing and managing business solutions over the world's most extensive network, complemented by consultancy in the design, deployment and integration of IT solutions. Almost every airport and airline in the world does business with SITA.
SITA's airport services focus on the complete integration of technology systems at airports. As a result, SITA helps airports collaborate with all stakeholders, from airlines to concessionaires, to increase efficiency, maximise passenger satisfaction and improve financial performance. SITA has a unique understanding of the complexities of running an airport day to day, and our solutions embrace technologies like business intelligence, NFC, Beacons and the ATI Cloud.
SITA's solutions for passenger and baggage processing, departure and arrival control, terminal management and multimedia display systems set the standards for efficiency to help airports achieve operational excellence.
SITA provides the broadest portfolio for the air transport industry, including:
1. Managed global communications, infrastructure and outsourcing services
2. Services for airport management and operations, passenger operations, airline commercial management, baggage operations, transportation security and border management, flight operations, aircraft operations, air-to-ground communications, cargo operations and more.
SITA AIRCOM's air traffic control services enable air traffic service (ATS) providers implementing data-link applications to connect to the AIRCOM network, offering data and voice communications with SITA AIRCOM customer's aircraft. More than 1,500 customer aircraft use SITA's advanced future air navigation system avionics, enabling pilots to use data-link instead of voice.
Today, SITA is focusing on supporting the transition of air traffic management from an analogue to a digital communication, navigation and surveillance infrastructure. This includes controller pilot data link communications (CPDLC) and automatic dependent surveillance broadcast (ADS-B).