How did the baggage handling system develop and which systems are used in airports today?

Are you curious as to how baggage handling systems and airport baggage conveyor belts have evolved and whether airports today use the same systems?  Then read on!



The evolution of the baggage handling system in the airport

It’s hard to imagine, but in the early days of aviation travel, passengers dropped off and received their luggage on the runway themselves.


With the rise of aviation and more and more people starting to use aircraft as a means of transportation, however, aircraft became larger and airports more complex.

The old system of baggage drop off and collection could no longer be allowed and a new baggage handling system had to be invented.

The operating principle of a baggage handling system

And so an operating principle developed that airports still use to this day.

Passengers would hand over their luggage at a check-in counter, a conveyor belt would then transport the luggage to a location where airport personnel specialising in fast loading and unloading would load it onto wagons, also known as baggage dollies.

Upon the aircraft’s arrival, the luggage would be unloaded from the aircraft and transported to wagons. These would be driven to a collection point often next to the terminal building. The luggage would be placed on a conveyor belt – or directly on a carousel belt –and transported to inside the building. There, the luggage would be delivered to a carousel belt, where it could be received by passengers.

Early technology used in a baggage handling system

Historical baggage handling systems used the technology adopted in open mining systems and consisted of simple, straight conveyor belts.

Over time, however, facilities became more complex and new facilities – such as round conveyor belts, sorting lanes, sorting facilities and parking facilities (later known as baggage storages) – were introduced to cope with the ever-increasing volume of luggage.

The automisation of the baggage handling system

In 1971 the first automated baggage handling system was invented by BNP Associates and it’s this technology that is in use in every major airport around the world today.

By automating the system, a central control system utilising specially developed baggage handling software operates the entire baggage handling system. Today, this includes mobile baggage handling software which allows managers of the system to check and correct problems from their mobile phones.


Technologies used in baggage handling systems

Modern baggage handling systems can generally be categorised into three systems:

Conveyor technology

The conveyor baggage handling system consists of a huge network of hundreds of different conveyors belts with junctions connecting all of them. Through this network of conveyors and junctions, your bag can be sent to nearly any destination automatically. Computers control the conveyor junctions to make sure the luggage ends up exactly where it needs to go. When the bag comes to a junction, a machine called a pusher either lets it pass or pushes it onto another conveyor.

ICS baggage handling systems with special-purpose containers

In special-purpose container baggage handling systems, each bag is loaded into its own individual carrier at the beginning of its journey and is ‘married’ to the carrier during its entire journey through  the transport and sortation system. The container heads for its destination by means of a rail track similar to a roller coaster. The bag is identified by a unique radio frequency identification (RFID) tag attached to the container, which is easier to read than a system in which the item of baggage may conceal the luggage tag with the destination information.

These systems are also known as Individual Carrier Systems (ICS) and are used at regional airports and large airport hubs around the world.

The great advantage of ICS baggage handling systems is that higher speeds are possible than with conveyor systems, making them an excellent solution for both medium and high-speed capacity sorting. They provide safe transportation with no baggage jams, no ‘lost tracking’ and baggage is able to be screened while in the container. The ICS baggage handling systems are also suitable for airports with one or more terminals, as well as inter-terminal connections.

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Security screening built in to the baggage handling system

After September 11, 2001, most airports around the world began to implement baggage screening directly into their baggage handling systems.

In the USA, the Transportation Security Administration refers to these systems as the Checked Baggage Inspection System (CBIS), where hold baggage is fed directly into Explosive Detection System (EDS) machines. The CBIS can sort baggage based on each bag’s security status assigned by an EDS machine or by a security screening operator.

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Despite its humble beginnings, the baggage handling system has evolved over time to be very sophisticated, fully-automated systems. They can now involve kilometre-long networks controlled by smart algorithms and software especially designed to move large volumes of baggage to their proper destinations.



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