How AI and RFID could solve the surge in lost airport luggage

The number of travelers reporting stranded luggage this summer jumped 30 percent from pre-pandemic levels.
Deena Theresa
The amount of luggage being lost and mishandled by airlines is surging.luoman/iStock
  • In April, U.S. airlines lost (at least temporarily) roughly 1 in 167 checked bags.
  • Automated baggage reconciliation and RFID tags could be a potential solution.
  • AI requires good quality baggage data to perform effectively and reduce baggage mishandling.

Every traveler's worst nightmare has come true for many people who are flying this summer. As the trend of revenge travel — taking a trip to "get revenge" on missed opportunities during the pandemic — has surged, so has the amount of luggage being lost or mishandled by airlines. As it stands today, short-staffed airports and airlines are struggling to contain the mounting baggage crisis.

But the mess isn't new. According to aviation IT provider SITA, there were more than 24.8 million mishandled bags in 2018. That would be 40 bags disappearing every minute. Among these, European passengers got the short end of the stick with 7.29 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers. Things were a bit better for travelers in North America, where the number of lost bags per thousand passengers was just 2.85, and things were better still in Asia, where the number was just 1.77. These statistics actually signaled an improvement — in 2007, the figure stood at 46.9 million — until 2022.

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"Mishandled baggage rates have in fact fallen significantly over the last decade or so prior to Covid – largely because of the deployment of automated baggage reconciliation and tracking systems. However, downsizing for business viability following the pandemic has impacted resources and expertise dedicated to baggage management i.e. airlines, ground handlers, and airports," Peter Drummond, Head of Baggage, SITA, tells IE in an interview.

Insurer Mapfre revealed that the number of travelers reporting stranded luggage this summer jumped 30 percent from 2019. According to The Guardian, almost six bags per 1,000 pieces of luggage checked in by passengers were at least temporarily lost by US airlines in April. At London Heathrow Airport, hundreds of lost bags were reportedly dumped in a hall to be processed later. Authorities concerned blamed a lack of ground staff employed by airlines to check in passengers and organize luggage. The situation has become so bad that some passengers have taken matters into their own hands, slipping tracking devices into their luggage.

Can AI resolve the baggage crisis?

There is an acute need to address the problem. "Our SITA Baggage IT Insights 2022 reveals that the mishandled rate is creeping up again, and the concern is that, unaddressed, this rate may end up being much higher than it was pre-pandemic. The cost of lost bags is a huge expense for air transport and adversely impacts passenger satisfaction. The global mishandled baggage rate has spiked by 24 percent to 4.35 bags per thousand passengers in 2021 according to the report," says Drummond.

To resolve the problem to some extent, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) introduced Resolution 753, which came into effect on June 1, 2018. It mandates that airlines track baggage at key baggage journey points. "Implementing the tracking of bags – to ensure bags can be tracked at check-in, loading, transfer, and arrivals, and the relevant data can be exchanged at each change of custody – is a complex exercise which is something acknowledged by IATA when introducing Resolution 753. This is because of potential process and infrastructure changes that require wider collaboration with key stakeholders, such as airports and ground handlers, involved in the bag journey," explains Drummond. To date, however, only some airlines have undertaken a partial implementation of baggage tracking.

No doubt harnessing the power of AI could revolutionize airports’ baggage handling systems, according to a white paper 'Intelligent Tracking: A Baggage Management Revolution' by SITA.

"There is significant pressure to increase operational efficiency today, which is accelerating digitalization. We think smart technology for baggage automation can help restore efficiency and confidence in baggage processes, automating key processes, allowing airports and airlines to reallocate the staff they have where they are most needed," says Drummond.

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We think smart technology for baggage automation can help restore efficiency and confidence in baggage processes

Moreover, automation and digitalization will enable the industry to better utilize its staff’s expertise, support passenger satisfaction, and improve efficiencies of cost and time, he continues. "Technology also provides the agility to scale operations up and down based on demand, a much-needed capability these days."

Barcodes and RFID tags to save mishandled luggage

Drummond mentions automated baggage reconciliation and tracking technology — commonly known as baggage reconciliation systems (BRS) — as a potential solution to reduce baggage mishandling because it helps airline or ground handlers track every bag.

"SITA’s Bag Manager is an example of a BRS system. The solution tracks the complete journey of the bag from check-in to delivery, tracks every bag that is loaded onto a plane, a ULD, or a cart, scanning and evaluating the characteristics of each bag against the flight parameters to ensure bags are loaded onto the right plane," he says.

Now not only could a BRS system help ensure bags are loaded correctly, but it also tracks bags "when they’re most likely to go astray – during the transfer process. It minimizes flight delays by making it easier to locate and remove bags for offloading. We have observed an average reduction in mishandled bags of 20 percent when SITA Bag Manager is implemented," says Drummond.

Though AI could be an effective solution to handling millions of bags a year, it still requires good quality baggage data to perform effectively. For this, airports and airlines must have the correct information about all bags, which is also shared with all the stakeholders. "Implementing the end-to-end tracking of bags requires wider collaboration with key stakeholders, such as airports and ground handlers, involved in the bag journey," he says.

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Implementing the end-to-end tracking of bags requires wider collaboration with key stakeholders, such as airports and ground handlers, involved in the bag journey

To help with this, SITA introduced Bag Journey, a data monitoring platform for global baggage tracking that was developed to support IATA Resolution 753 compliance. "The solution collates full end-to-end tracking information and shares this information with other stakeholders - airlines, airports, and ground handlers - involved in a bag’s journey from start to finish," says Drummond.

For example, offloading bags when a checked-in passenger fails to board the aircraft can cause flight delays. "For this reason, Saudia implemented a ‘never onto aircraft’ notification direct to staff devices in the SITA Bag Manager application so staff knows whether bags belong to a boarded passenger, reducing on-stand time delays by up to 20 minutes," explains Drummond.

Tech at our disposal

Another technology that can be implemented is RFID. IATA had recommended the use of RFID technology and explained how it could be used to reduce the number of bags being misplaced. RFID can be read at a distance by readers and does not require line-of-sight to be read, unlike barcodes. As a result, the IATA Board of Governors announced its decision in June 2018 to implement RFID by 2020. Unfortunately, the pandemic hindered the process.

"RFID is one type of data capture technology that can provide richer datasets for baggage operations because an RFID inlay in a bag tag or reusable electronic tags with RFID helps to improve the readability of tags in transfer," says Drummond. "And we see that 62 percent of airlines are planning to invest in RFID tracking, according to SITA Air Transport IT Insights 2021."

The technology is hardly new. RFID tags were first introduced in several airports, including Hong Kong, Milan Malpensa, and Las Vegas McCarran years ago. They seem to be a good defense against lost luggage.

According to Drummond, a key challenge with the deployment or testing of RFID, like many technologies, is to ensure that the key stakeholders are involved for effectiveness, and, select suitable IT providers that have the necessary expertise and experience. "Combining bag tracking data with new technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI) to sort through this data is providing useful insights to turbo-charge efficiencies in baggage operations. This is of growing importance for airlines as reflected in SITA Air Transport IT Insights 2021, which shows a small increase in investment in artificial intelligence (AI) and data exchange technologies," he says.

Another important challenge is sharing bag status information with passengers and frontline staff. Fortunately, "according to our Air Transport IT Insights 2021, almost all airlines (83 percent) plan to provide staff access to real-time baggage status information by 2024, a considerable increase from 43 percent today," says Drummond.

Evidently, going forward, the effective use of AI for baggage handling in the airline industry depends on developing this data-sharing framework. However, the airline and baggage network is convoluted, and the implementation of such systems is expected to take time. That said, technology is likely to be a key component of resolving the carousel crisis and helping travelers.