“Suitcases travel through the airport faster than passengers”
We love to moan about the baggage handling at an airport. And if our suitcase misses the flight we become downright angry because then our comfort world collapses. But we don’t always know what goes on behind the scenes.
Until a year and a half ago 45-year-old Benny Vervoort was mainly responsible for the baggage processing installation at Belgium’s national airport. Meanwhile his tasks have been extended to include coaching a number of new colleagues and long-term planning, amongst other things.
“To put it simply, I am an important contact at Brussels Airport for everything to do with automated baggage transport. That excludes everything that the handling agents do of course; these days that means two large companies, Swissport & Aviapartner, plus some airline companies that do their handling themselves.”
Now, in 2014, there are around 16 kilometres of conveyor belts in the belly of Brussels Airport, driven by 5500 motors. More than 60 cameras and 100 PLCs monitor and steer the operation. At departures baggage is put into the system via 180 check-in desks, at arrivals it eventually falls onto 7 different carrousels.
“We can split the baggage system at Brussels Airport into two parts”, explains Benny. “On the one hand the system at the main terminal (opened in 1994) and on the other the one at Pier A, where a brand new system was brought into service in 2012. Here we reach speeds of 26 km/h or, to be precise, your suitcase travels up to 7 metres per second – a good deal faster than you move through the terminal yourself.”
The whole baggage department at BRU is run and monitored by a number of managers, supplemented by about ten duty managers. In addition to them you should count some sixty (technical) employees supplied by subcontractors, who are available 24/7. The majority of the staff work for the handling agents, who employ hundreds of people daily, purely and simply for baggage processing.
Lost or delayed baggage
The baggage department at Brussels Airport runs correctly 98 percent of the time, on an annual basis. “As far as our part of the process is concerned at least”, clarifies Benny. “Once again, the manual processing by the handling agent will determine the end quality.”
“…It’s the handling agent, not the airport that’s responsible for checking-in, loading, unloading and delivering hold baggage…”
One of the difficulties that affect passengers directly is what people generally call ‘lost baggage’, although in reality it is usually ‘delayed baggage’. “A suitcase that doesn’t arrive at the same time as you do has missed the plane for all sorts of possible reasons and will be sent on asap afterwards. If you immediately file a clear report, at least”, says Benny.
So how many suitcases are we talking about?
“On an ordinary day 30,000 suitcases fly in and out of here”, says Benny. “On peak days during the summer months it can easily be double that.” If it goes wrong (i.e. a conveyor belt breaks down) the system is constructed so that other loops take over. “It’s only when there’s a snowball effect and a number of systems break down through saturation that we have real problems”, says Benny. “A sort of Murphy’s law that can lead in the end to a crash, a horrible word that means that we grind to a halt. A crash is very, very exceptional and the speed of the solution depends very much on the moment. If it’s early in the morning on a busy July day it can make us nervous”, he laughs.
So where can things go wrong?
Airline baggage processing intrinsically follows a simple system. Your suitcase gets a barcode label; the computer throws it into the right airplane. So where can things go wrong? “To be honest, sometimes the passenger is also partly responsible”, says Benny. “Look how many travellers leave their old labels on their cases? Especially the reserve labels, the little sticky ones here and there are often the reason why the baggage transfer doesn’t go smoothly. It’s simple, every barcode is loaded with information. When a computer scans an old one, there’s a hitch. The same for creased labels. All this baggage is separated immediately and dealt with by hand. Not so terrible in itself, but it is time-consuming. About 10 percent of all suitcases suffer from this, even 15 percent of international transfer baggage.
Size is another problem. Anything that is not standard is a risk. So crutches, golf clubs, umbrellas, etc., they all have to be processed manually.” They can cause a tear in a conveyor belt and possibly a breakdown. “It wouldn’t be the first time in the world an umbrella brought an airport to a standstill”, laughs Benny. This manager is not a fan of the newest generation of suitcases with four thin wheels, one on each corner, either. “Handy for the customers but a disadvantage for us”, he says. Neither is Benny keen on sealing suitcases by wrapping them in strong adhesive plastic. “It turns your suitcase into an overly mobile ball, makes a good shape a bad one. I often say: anything that can roll causes problems. The ideal suitcase is a rectangular box, preferably without little wheels sticking out and straps trailing.” That’s why we try to dispatch all bags with straps and cardboard boxes etc. in plastic crates, it avoids possible problems.
Tips for those who fly
- choose the most rectangular model of suitcase you can find
- remove all the labels (including non-airline ones)
- make sure your home address is clearly marked on it
- don’t challenge the system by ignoring the minimum check-in time
- if your baggage is damaged, delayed or lost: immediately file a clear report with your handler or airline.
We can - we want to - do a lot, but we can’t work magic.
(article originally published in Dutch in Travel etc.)