Why airports are choosing ICS for their BHS

Of the ten busiest airports in Europe in 2019, nine had implemented an Individual Carrier System (ICS) baggage handling system (BHS). And seven of the nine exclusively Skytrax 5 star-rated international airports have implemented ICS. Why are airports around the world opting for an ICS-based BHS: what’s the difference between it and the conventional conveyor-based system and what are the advantages of the ICS-based BHS over its conventional counterpart?


What matters when deciding upon a BHS

When it comes to considering which BHS to implement, it’s always useful to consider first the functional requirements the airport has of its BHS.

Primarily, a BHS must be more reliable and flexible in handling the necessary baggage volume and more energy-efficient than the airport’s existing system.

In deciding on a BHS, the key performance criteria to consider are these:

  • System capacity and efficiency: How does the system impact on efficiency?
  • Baggage time in system: How high is the throughput and speed of baggage transportation from check-in through to make-up?
  • System reliability and availability: How many system jams, redundancies and short-shipped bags occur? How fast is the baggage connection time between terminals?
  • Baggage tracking: is the system able to track a bag at any point to meet stricter security regulations?
  • Passenger experience: How satisfied is the passenger, in terms of lost baggage and efficient processing?
  • Single baggage access: How easy is it to pick or access single bags once they’re in the system, for passengers who miss connecting flights at transfer hubs?
  • Environmental impacts and energy-saving benefits: How does the system impact on the climate, energy use and other environmental factors?

Moreover, the airport must also consider:

  • System layout: is additional footprint required?
  • CAPEX: What is the ROI, TCO and how long does it take to install?
  • OPEX: How easy is the system to operate and maintain in terms of labour, time and spare parts?
  • Single and multi-terminal operations: How easy is it to connect terminals and support transfers

The essential differences ­­­between the conveyor and ICS technologies explained

So, what are the major operational differences between ICS baggage handling technology and traditional conveyor technology?

The one-way conveyor system

The conveyor technology is a one-directional delivery system in which checked-in baggage is collected onto delivery mainline conveyors and transported to the checked baggage inspection system (CBIS) screening matrix.

Once screened, the baggage is then transported via mainline conveyors to outbound bag rooms. Inbound baggage is collected from arriving aircraft and transported via airline dedicated tugs and carts to specific inbound load piers and delivery conveyors transport baggage to their respective claim units on the arrivals level.

The bi-directional, tote-using ICS system

By comparison, an ICS-based BHS is a modular, closed-loop conveying system on which special-purpose carriers move baggage through the transport and sortation system. Some modern ICS systems can run in reverse, providing self-correcting routing options. Some may also use conventional conveyors, such as at the baggage induction. But most today feature self bag drop directly into the ICS to avoid interfaces or transitions that could compromise 100% bag tracking.

The ICS carriers consist of either totes or carts, are uniform in size and larger than ordinary baggage. Each carrier accommodates a single bag and has its own unique radio frequency identification (RFID) tag. The bag is loaded into the carrier at the beginning of its journey through the baggage hall and remains on the carrier throughout the screening and sortation processes. The bag and carrier are only separated at the very end, just before loading the ULD transport container or baggage dolly.

For a deeper look at when to use tote-based ICS technology and cart-based ICS technology, download our whitepaper “Modern Individual Carrier Systems For Airport Baggage Handling

The benefits of the ICS

So what are the benefits of the ICS-based system and what are its advantages to the airport?

Layout and flow

Firstly, the ICS is compact in design, involving less equipment than the conveyor-based system and consuming less footprint. As such, ICS doesn’t require further building space and can be accommodated in existing airport infrastructure. As ICS parts are so light, maintenance access can be reduced to just one side of the system, significantly reducing the need to build walkways. The compact size of the system also allows shorter emergency exit routes.

Its flexible configuration makes it ideal for mixed flows but it also makes building in redundancy routes, load sharing and rerouting of bags after screening uncomplicated. Its extendable, modular design also means that the airport can easily accommodate increased capacity and any new changes that international regulations or operational disruptions may demand.

Throughput capacity and system availability

Then there’s the throughput and system availability.

The ICS is a high-capacity system with a reduced in-system baggage time. It provides bag transportation that is at least five times faster than conveyor belt systems. It also delivers faster transfer connection times between terminals with twice as much throughput.

Take Munich Airport’s T2 ICS-based BHS system, for example. The system went into operation in 2003, was extended several times to fit the airport’s expansion strategy and currently has a sorting capacity of over 20,000 bags per hour. Before the global pandemic, its baggage handling performance showed a monthly availability of more than 99.9 percent and a Left Behind Index (LBI) of 0.0009 percent. This means that no more than 3 bags were left behind when handling 315,000 bags per week.

Security requirements and 100% tracking

ICS is approved and preferred by the TSA and ECAC for tote screening, streamlining the security screening process and 100 per cent traceability of each bag throughout the baggage handling process.

Operational and maintenance costs

Studies have shown that the overall costs for operations and maintenance staff, spare parts and energy are substantially less in the ICS baggage handling.

With fewer system jams and lost baggage, as well as faster run times, less downtime is experienced with an ICS system, which means fewer resources and hours are needed than in the conventional system. But not only are failure rates lower, scheduled maintenance on an ICS is about five times faster, significantly increasing the overall system availability.

The ICS’ simplified design and use of common components across different elements of the system also result in fewer maintenance needs and lower spare part consumption.

And while conventional systems have motors continuously running, ICS utilises electric motors that function only when a tote arrives, ensuring higher energy efficiency and lower operational costs.

Energy consumption and sustainability

When comparing the environmental impact of the respective baggage handling systems, ICS is a more sustainable option than the conventional conveyor system.

The sortation process within ICS is very precise with mishandled baggage virtually zero, the ICS contributes to signifcantly less CO2 emissions. (According to Greenbaggage, 30 percent additional air miles are required due to mishandled baggage.)

The tote system eliminates key components found in traditional systems, such as gear boxes, and enjoys less belt friction which allows for energy savings. Variable frequency drives are applied to each system module, reducing energy consumption even further.

Furthermore, analyses of greenhouse gas emissions, construction materials used, energy efficiency, and system lifetime and durability show ICS to be significantly less impacting than traditional systems.

This was one of the key reasons driving San Francisco Airport’s choice of ICS for its new Harvey Milk Terminal 1. The considerably lower use of materials and energy made the system a low carbon footprint option for the airport.

Harvey Milk’s ICS also played a significant part in SFO being the first airport terminal in the world to achieve a LEED platinum certification. Its ICS solution added many points to the certification process.

Passenger experience

Given the ICS’ 100% tracking abilities and limited manual sortation interventions, less lost baggage occurs in an ICS than in a conventional system.

The use of individual carriers also eliminates baggage damage and the ICS’ higher speed delivers baggage earlier to passengers upon arrival. These differences all positively impact passenger satisfaction.

Higher service level for airlines

ICS can also support the objectives of airlines in elevating their service levels. Bag travel times can be shortened with higher tote or tray speeds on the mainlines. This means airlines are able to offer tighter check-in and connection times, benefitting both airlines and the passengers they serve.

Installation and commissioning

The modular design of the ICS simplifies engineering, manufacturing, installation and maintenance and designing and installing ICS takes no longer than the conveyor-based BHS.

Capital investment and cost-effectiveness

The commonly held perception that the initial capital investment in conventional conveyor systems is lower than for ICS is not always a given. It really depends on the particular needs or challenges each airport is seeking to resolve in choosing its BHS solution. The business case for conventional systems, as well as ICS, must be proven, tailored to the specific stations and applications.

However, from a TCO perspective (analysed over the life of the system and considered the best way to assess the right BHS technology for an airport or terminal), ICS technology is lower when recurring costs are considered over time.

In 2015, baggage handling consultants Swanson Rink sought to determine if there was a business case for ICS in the United States. In calculating TCO, it concluded the TCO of the ICS was lower than the TCO of conventional BHS:


New developments in modern airports include the applications of self-service bag drop, dynamic or Early Bag Storage (EBS), rationalising the makeup process through batch building and reclaim on demand. A significant benefit of the fully automated ICS is that not only does it interface smoothly with these other airport automated systems, it actually offers all of these applications with its tote-based technology. Either way, it is future-proof technology designed to accommodate tomorrow’s technologies.


ICS technology brings with it a number of advantages for the airport, including more reliable delivery of bags, less bag loss, reduced ramp incursions and overall reduced cost of ownership. It can be accommodated in existing buildings without requiring additional footprint and its design, installation and commissioning are no more protracted than conventional systems. 

Importantly, ICS works extremely well in a common or shared use environment where resource costs can be shared for baggage handling, check-in and operations and maintenance of the system.

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