Successful implementation of baggage handling automation at airports

The Pandemic sealed automation’s transformation from buzzword to necessity in many industries, and few felt the change as acutely as airport baggage handling.  But it had little to do with COVID-19’s effect on the workload, rather its elimination of the workers who carried it out.

Mass redundancies in 2020 and 2021 saw baggage handlers, including many skilled Baggage Handling System (BHS) workers, embark on new careers in other industries. By the time their jobs needed to be filled again, they had found new work, never to return.

Filling the vacancies proved difficult: workforce numbers remain 20-40 percent fewer than they were in 2019, forcing the sector to innovate.

Accordingly, baggage handling automation is a necessity at most airports more than ever. Whereas before, they were inclined to invest in systems operated by humans, now they want systems operated by machine

This article will look at what it takes to successfully implement baggage handling automation at airports, giving careful consideration to the following challenges:

  • Building a BHS on a brownfield site
  • Implementing a new BHS around live operations
  • Testing and the ramp-up
  • Resistance to change


Unlike greenfield projects, where the design and construction start with a blank page or plot, implementing a BHS on a brownfield site presents unique challenges that require careful planning and execution to either upgrade or integrate new systems into existing infrastructure.

Implementing a BHS into a building that wasn’t designed for the system is a huge challenge. It accordingly requires a comprehensive understanding of the current set-up, including its limitations and the potential for future expansion.
As the name ‘brownfield’ suggests, there might also be elements at play that are neither energy-efficient nor environmentally acceptable, and it is important to not add to the footprint, but rather optimise it. However, this is easier said than done, as it is very often impossible to add space.

Stakeholder engagement is key, as the implementation phase will likely impact other parts of the airport.
Only with a clear overview can the system designers come up with innovative solutions to seamlessly integrate the modern BHS technology without disrupting operations. This requires rigorous planning and testing of new system components within the live environment.

Implementing a new BHS around live operations

Implementing a new BHS around live operations has been compared to performing open-heart surgery on a runner in the middle of a marathon. It demands:

  • Meticulous planning to ensure the downtimes are minimal
  • Total understanding of operational workflows
  • A commitment to maintaining operations at all times
  • Support of all airport stakeholders – for example, night work is likely

To acquire a total understanding of how the new operations might impact existing workflows, simulation and emulation tools can be used – such as a Digital Twin – to identify potential bottlenecks and other issues, thus enabling necessary modifications.

Modern BHSs are modular in design and this may enable off-site testing and swift implementation, which will reduce the amount of downtime and provide opportunities for operator training, which again won’t impact live operations.

Again, constant communication with all stakeholders – particularly the airlines – is important during this phase. Their feedback might highlight limitations not noticed within the confines of the testing arena, which will further improve the system’s performance.

Resistance to change

Modern BHSs are highly automated, and this might cause a little resistance among the workforce.

A little resistance is expected as many workers find change difficult, so communication and training is key to getting staff successfully operating the new system.

Informing the workforce about the benefits of the new system is essential from Day One of the project – and that should include the reduced labour requirements.

They will learn the benefits of teamwork. Not only will their output, efficiency and accuracy all be improved, but their work will be safer, less strenuous and ultimately more rewarding – with the bonus they will learn a wide range of new skills that will serve them well in the future.

Involving them during the testing, working alongside experienced representatives from the system providers, will not only give them familiarity with the new system, but a sense of ownership.

It’s also the ideal environment to ask questions and give feedback – away from the stress of live operations.


Implementing baggage handling automation at an airport is a huge challenge, but it can be made so much easier with a skilled supplier onboard who has a proven record at successful installations. Conveying the benefits of automation right from the beginning will give all stakeholders a sense of ownership of the new system, which will help ease potential hiccups during its implementation.

Subscribe to our newsletter