Thousands of people who checked in their bags with Southwest Airlines late last year did not see them again for nearly a month.
After a storm of issues led to the airline canceling thousands of flights in late December, the majority of bags were not returned to their owners until late January, a worst case scenario for travelers uneasy about checking bags on a flight.
The luggage was instead piled in heaps at airports, their photos circulating with headlines that dominated travel news for days.
Similar incidents occurred the previous summer, and more are bound to happen again without intervention. The number of airline passengers is expected to soon surpass 2019 levels, and experts question whether the existing infrastructure will be sufficient, especially because investment took a pause during the pandemic.
“I would say disruptions in the system are going to become, unfortunately, more pronounced,” said Darin Juby, head of baggage transformation for Future Travel Experience, a sort of think tank for air travel innovation comprised of industry professionals.
One of the biggest issues right now is a lack of workforce throughout the air travel industry, including the workers who handle luggage and transfer it from one place to another. When flight delays and cancellations exacerbate the issues of outdated general airline tech and a workforce shortage, delayed luggage is a done deal — and outdated baggage technology only makes the problem worse.
From the time a passenger drops off luggage until the time of pickup, that bag goes through a system that typically is decades old. Despite advanced consumer tracking tech, most airlines still track bags with a paper tag that contains a barcode. While Amazon warehouses are full of robots organizing packages, airports still transport bags via conveyor belt and manual labor. While an online package can be traced along its route from start to finish, most air travel passengers are left wondering where their bags are until they finally lay eyes on them again.
While it will take decades and hundreds of millions of dollars to fully realize the ideal baggage system, there are changes that could be made immediately to increase efficiency and prevent delays.
The Top Issues First
When it comes to baggage technology, Juby believes one of the top issues is lack of data communication between stakeholders. Much of the data needed exists in some form, but not in a way that can be shared. Between the airport, one or more airlines, and often multiple third-party vendors, there’s a lot that could go wrong when transferring a bag.
“There’s not really a standard way that airlines and airports share information,” said Juby, who’s also the Toronto Airport’s director of baggage services. “I think that from a technology perspective, data sharing is the next big thing to really track the custody of where that bag is.”
The issue gets worse the bigger an airport gets, which is why the major problems are in the major hubs. With manual sharing of data that occurs now, a big weather event is sure to cause another domino effect of issues.
“You can’t just have people use their minds to do that,” Juby said. “That may seem obvious, but in our industry, the real time data is hard to get.”
Bagtag, which provides electronic bag tags to multiple airlines, is among startups working on a baggage data sharing platform, according to Jasper Quak, head of Amsterdam-based Bagtag.
“What we’re trying to do is connect all those different stakeholders in the process by tying them together in a neat solution,” Quak said. “The more technology we add in the process and automate things, the easier it will be to handle issues in the future.”
Nicole Hogg, head of baggage for SITA, believes it is important for the industry to develop and share new technologies, but it’s also important to be realistic about what companies are actually able to afford and implement right now. That means focusing on lowest hanging fruit before anything else.
“The thing we need to be mindful of is that we need to make sure that the airports and the airlines have the infrastructure to deal with those changes,” Hogg said.
SITA, one of the oldest and largest players in baggage tech, is focusing on the immediate need of addressing the labor shortage through automation and digitalization, she said. The aviation industry lost around 2.3 million jobs during the pandemic and recorded a cost of $2.2 billion in 2022 because of mishandled baggage, according to SITA.
She pointed to SITA’s recent WorldTracer Auto Reflight technology, meant to automatically reflight mishandled bags and notify passengers of any delay. The German airline Lufthansa said in a statement that based upon a trial, it believes the technology can automatically reflight up to 70 percent of the airline’s mishandled bags at Munich Airport.
“We try to think big picture,” Hogg said. “We try to think about automation and digitalization, and really how do we help address the problems that we’re seeing. Staff shortages is not going to go away.”
Baggage Technology of the Future
Shabbir Girach, an industry veteran, is among those who believe legacy companies and their older technology have too strong of a hold on the industry, preventing any real innovation from happening very quickly.
“Some companies don’t want the new technology because it’s going to take them out of business,” said Girach, also the founder of startup Shabstec, which is working on different technologies to modernize the industry.
“I think there’s a massive opportunity to change in the next two or three years to a new model, new technology, new processes, more efficient travel experience for everybody. The technology is here today to support all that. We need to make sure that airlines and airports support the technology moving forward and they understand the impact of the technology.”
One of the main products that Shabstec is working on is TagForLife, a tag and corresponding reader that uses radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, the same efficient scanning tech used in major logistics warehouses. The point of the tech is that the tag’s information is read and stored automatically. In a room of 4,000 delayed bags, they could all be scanned within minutes and their whereabouts shared with passengers, rather than today’s process of manually scanning one by one.
Shabstec is starting trials of the tech soon with major airports in the U.K., Girach said.
Quak of Bagtag believes that electronic bag tags will play an important role in the future of airport operations as the number of travelers continues to increase. He envisions a future where check-in is completed before arrival and airlines can virtually eliminate that on-site process. He said Bagtag is working with one of its recent partners, Alaska Airlines, as the airline aims to grow its customer base 40 percent over the next couple of years without expanding ground operations.
“We’ve actually seen this tendency in the last 20 years, where we’re trying to get people more prepared away from the airport because everything you do at the airport is very expensive. Real estate is crazy expensive, the equipment is expensive,” Quak said.
Girach said he is also working on robotics that could replace the need for conveyor belts, as well as robots that could collect bags from ongoing passengers and others that could deliver them to passengers after landing. He expects to have a robotic greeter product ready next year.
Juby of Future Travel Experience sees the ultimate system as one without manual handling of bags or use of paper at all. Someday, the information connected to a bag could include details like x-rays, which could be shared between airports to move along the security process.
“To me, that would be the future of baggage,” Juby said.
When an Item Is Lost
If a bag does become lost, it enters into a whole different set of processes led by the airport or the airline or the local Transportation Security Administration operation, depending on where the item is lost.
The TSA estimates that up to 100,000 items are left behind at airport checkpoints each month.
Many of the airports that have to deal with lost items do so with manual processes like spreadsheets and phone calls. If an item is never reunited with a passenger, it typically heads to an auction.
When the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport decided to take on the local TSA’s lost items in the name of better customer service, it tripled the volume of the airport’s lost and found. With a staff of 10 spread through a 24/7 schedule, they could only move so quickly.
Since the airport started using a tool by startup Boomerang, staff can now process items in a quarter of the time, according to Lee Ann Norris, customer experience manager at the airport.
“We were using a database before and it was working; it was just super time consuming,” Norris said.
Boomerang enables the digital intake of a lost item by customers as well as staff, using AI to automate matches. The passenger receives an automated update about the claim daily and when a match is made.
“Most of the airports I talked to — they route all customer claims to a phone number,” said Skyler Logsdon, CEO of Boomerang.
Boomerang is starting by partnering with airports, but Logsdon aims to do business with airlines, rideshare companies, and public transportation as well, with the ultimate goal of the partners being able to share information about lost items between each other.
Like all of the aforementioned aviation tech innovations, Boomerang is competing with legacy technology in this space, which Logsdon believes has a stronghold on the industry yet is outdated and inefficient.
“I probably wouldn’t look at the industry if I felt like there’s no problem to solve there. It’s really behind,” Logsdon said.