Thirty Years of Passenger-Baggage Reconciliation: Is it still relevant?

passenger baggage

Passenger-baggage reconciliation became the industry norm over thirty years ago. Since then the threats to air travel and the response from government and industry have long since evolved and new technologies are on the near horizon. Once the first line of defence, is passenger-baggage reconciliation now obsolete?
John Vermilye lays-out the issues.

22nd June 1985 started out like any other day at Vancouver International Airport. Working a steady stream of passengers at the Canadian Pacific Air Lines check-in desk, agent Jeannie Adams’ turned her attention to the next passenger in line. M. Singh was booked on CP060 to Toronto with a waitlist on Air India 181 to Montreal Mirabel Airport, and then on to Mumbai on the same aircraft with a change in flight number to Air India 182. Adams initially refused to through-check Singh’s dark-brown hard-side Samsonite because the connecting flight was still waitlisted. With the pressure of the queue and an insistent passenger in front of her, she relented, and the bag was checked on an interline baggage tag to Mumbai.

Later the same morning, at the same set of check-in counters, passenger L. Singh checked in a bag on CP003 to Tokyo Narita with a connection to Bangkok-bound Air India 301. Neither Singh ever boarded their flights – but their baggage did, and the airline industry has never been the same since.

Air India 181/182 was running an hour and forty minutes late. In Toronto, maintenance crews fixed a fifth 747 engine under the left wing – a normal procedure to ferry the massive engines – but one that takes much longer than the usual transit time. Just before the delayed flight started its descent to London Heathrow, a bomb hidden in baggage in the forward hold exploded, causing the aircraft’s fuselage to break-up and killing all 329 people on-board.

CP003 was luckier that day. Favourable winds cut the flying time to Narita, allowing to aircraft to arrive early. Just 55 minutes before the explosion over the Atlantic, half a world away at Narita Airport in Tokyo, the baggage checked-in by L. Singh exploded as it was being transferred to the Air India flight headed to Bangkok. Two Japanese ramp workers were killed.

The original plot actually failed. The objective was to have simultaneous explosions aboard two Air India aircraft – one sitting at the gate at Heathrow, the other in Narita. But it turned out dramatically different. The delay of the Air India flight from Toronto, and the near disaster averted when the second bomb’s timer was set one hour early in error, meant that the terrorists missed their mark.

The impact on the airline industry was immediate – there was massive disruption as normal interline baggage handling collapsed. Within hours it was no longer possible to through check baggage on some routes. ‘Baggage Parades’ were organised requiring ramp crews to line up all checked baggage on the tarmac while passengers filed past and identified their baggage, one by one, so that it could be cleared to load. The chaos was not restricted to Canada. Similar orders were implemented around the world, causing the disruption and inconvenience to spread globally.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), the Air Transport Association (ATA now renamed A4A), and the Airports Council International (ACI) reacted quickly, agreeing that the existing interline baggage procedures required an immediate overhaul. Together they formed the Joint IATA/ATA/ACI Baggage Security Working Group – the BSWG. Industry standards committees normally follow a painstakingly slow process – often taking two years and more to agree and implement a change. But not this time.

As a result of an incident four years earlier, Eastern Air Lines was ahead of the baggage security game. On 1 July 1981, Guatemalan terrorists, trying to discourage tourism to their country, planted a bomb in baggage that exploded while being loaded on the Eastern Boeing 727 flight from Guatemala City to Miami. The bomb was meant to take down the aircraft, but killed one ramp worker instead.

“…on 1 July 1981, Guatemalan terrorists, trying to discourage tourism to their country, planted a bomb in baggage that exploded while being loaded on the Eastern Boeing 727 flight from Guatemala City to Miami…”

Around that time, Eastern was working on a number of new baggage tracking concepts. Circular bar codes were used to sort luggage at its Miami International Airport hub. This was soon followed by more traditional bar-coded tags designating an offload pier. Then came the breakthrough – the baggage tag number was associated with the passenger’s itinerary and, simply by looking up the ‘license plate number’ (LPN or baggage tag number in today’s jargon), Eastern could direct luggage on the fly to the correct loading pier and even sort it based on criteria such as class of service.

Another objective was being pursued by Eastern’s baggage specialists. Following the incident at Guatemala City Airport, their goal was to only load baggage for passengers who had been confirmed boarded. Their solution did not require a baggage parade but something simpler and easier to manage. It also applied only to international not domestic flights. Baggage tags for international flights were redesigned with extra stubs, each with the baggage tag number. As each cart or container of baggage was built up, one of these stubs would be put into an envelope or stapled to a control sheet (called a Bingo-sheet in airline operations’ lingo). At the gate, the agents would ask the passengers for the claim checks of any baggage checked and let the ramp know that those bags were now cleared for loading. The project was developed, the tags printed and distributed to airports all over the network, yet never implemented. That is until June of 1985.

Against this backdrop, as Manager of System Baggage Operations for Eastern and as an active participant in the IATA and ATA Baggage Committees, I was elected Chairman of the BSWG. Our mandate was to work in concert with the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to align the new airline industry procedures with the changes being made to ICAO Annex 17.

Within a few months the challenge was met. Matching passengers with their baggage became the new international security norm. To facilitate this, the airlines adopted two of the concepts developed by Eastern Air Lines’ think-tank: detachable stubs and bar codes representing the LPN or baggage tag number. Both continue to be used today, more than 30 years after the new ICAO standards came into force in 1987.

Sadly, just one year later, on 21 December 1988, Pan Am 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, the result of a bomb sent in interline luggage when the passenger did not board. The tools and systems were in place to prevent the disaster but had not been applied. A bitter lesson.

After Lockerbie a new mini-industry was born with vendors offering software systems to better automate the passenger baggage reconciliation process, the so-called Baggage Reconciliation Systems or BRS. At about the same time, the airline industry agreed to double down on the bar code technology they adopted for reconciliation and changed the baggage tag specifications to what you see today – a long ‘orthogonal’ or ‘T’ formation bar code on a long thermal-printed baggage tag. This could then be used to sort baggage in their conveyor systems using lasers to read the tags at almost any angle.

What has changed in the 30 years since passenger-baggage reconciliation was introduced?

The early Baggage Reconciliation Systems (BRS) were typically home-grown by each airline but now are typically shared systems. BRS were originally intended to only reconcile passengers with baggage for security reasons but the airlines soon discovered that the value of the information gathered could also be used to improve their operational performance. According to Tarik Ennad, Director Information Management Baggage Services for KLM, “BRS have become a commodity system, but now we can add their tracking capability to not only comply with IATA Resolution 753, which requires registering when baggage is checked-in, loaded, transferred and delivered at destination, but also leverage the data for operational and information purposes”.

In 2006, five years after 9/11, Hold Baggage Screening (HBS) was adopted in ICAO Annex 17 4.5.1. With 100% HBS now in place, what is the role of passenger-baggage reconciliation today?

There are two issues:

  1. In normal operations, baggage sometimes is separated from the passenger outside of the control of the passenger. This can even happen as a result of delays due to security screening.

    According to ICAO Annex 17’s Standards and Recommended Practices (SARP), Appendix 27 to the Security Manual, “Hold Baggage Reconciliation and Authorization”, says: “Each item of unaccompanied hold baggage must be subjected to at least one of the following enhanced security controls”. It goes on to list five possible methods of enhanced screening, including Explosive Detection Systems (EDS). This means that, in the case of unaccompanied baggage, reconciliation does not apply anyway and therefore other screening alternatives can and must be applied.

    In IATA’s position paper on baggage reconciliation, they suggest that; “One can consider that where screening was initially done at one of these “enhanced” screening methods, offloading a bag and screening it a second time with the same equipment provides no real added value.”

  2. How many security procedures are enough? Should reconciliation be replaced by HBS or should it remain as an additional layer of security?

    Again IATA says, “We are aware that in some countries, domestic flights are already exempted from performing baggage reconciliation, and many already do exempt this function in cases where the bag has been separated from the passenger for reasons outside of their control.”

Baggage Tags are going digital

Ennad is looking further into the future; “With the introduction of better scanning/X-ray machines, I hope the need of a BRS in its current form could disappear, which opens up freedom of baggage.” This means an airline could manage the route a bag takes from origin to destination independently of the passenger; perhaps an earlier flight, routing via a less congested gateway or on a different flight with more available payload.

Baggage with permanent baggage tag (PBT)
Baggage with permanent baggage tag (PBT)

There is not yet a consensus on the fate of passenger baggage reconciliation requirements, but it is clear that the security infrastructure and protocols have evolved significantly since 1985. And there are more changes ahead.

“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” William Gibson

In 2016 Delta Airlines committed $50 million (£37 million) to add a radio frequency identification (RFID) inlay into all of its paper baggage tags.

A couple of airports – Hong Kong and Las Vegas – had already adopted RFID tags for their origin and transfer baggage and knew the benefits – the ‘read rate’ of RFID tags is near to 100%, which is not the case for bar code tags which require line of sight readers. RFID readers are less expensive to install than barcode readers and require less manpower which is needed to manually scan bar-code baggage tags that have been missed.

“…the ultimate goal? Permanent Baggage Tags, plates incorporating the RFID inlays installed on baggage at the factory…”

Delta’s decision, according to Project Director David Hosford, “was all about improving the passenger’s experience”. As a Delta passenger, you can get real-time updates via their app on your phone to know where your bag is throughout your journey and when it will be delivered to final claim.

Delta has taken the unprecedented step of integrating RFID readers into the belt loaders at their busiest airports. The belt loaders now have the intelligence to automatically stop a bag being loaded if it is not intended for that flight. Clearly, RFID has significant implications for passenger baggage reconciliation as well.

Where to next? At the 74th Annual General Meeting (AGM) of IATA held in Sydney in June 2018, the Board of Governors mandated IATA-standard RFID inlays in all baggage tags from 2020. The potential for RFID however, goes well beyond just tracking baggage.

This means that RFID will soon become the new standard, augmenting and ultimately replacing bar code baggage tags. The advantage for security is full visibility on the location of baggage at all times, who it belongs to, where it is going and more. If coupled with the passengers’ ‘known traveller’ information at check-in, and shared with security agencies, protocols appropriate to each passenger could be automatically applied.

The ultimate goal? Permanent Baggage Tags (PBT), plates incorporating the RFID inlays installed on baggage at the factory, which can be used again and again. Each PBT will have an absolutely unique number that identifies the baggage for life and which can be associated with the passenger.

There are other benefits too. This year the airlines will issue enough single-use baggage tags to stretch over 2 million kilometres or wrap around the equator more than 50 times. With permanent RFID tags able to replace bar code tags, and do a better job, avoiding the $400 million (£300 million) annual expense and waste of paper tags is obvious. The paper airline ticket is history. We have digital boarding passes. The value of smart permanent baggage tags for hold baggage security could be significant.

“…at the 74th AGM of IATA held in Sydney in June 2018, the Board of Governors mandated IATA-standard RFID inlays in all baggage tags from 2020…”

What is the value of passenger-baggage reconciliation when more effective security measures are already well established, and the benefits of real-time baggage and passenger tracking will soon be realised?

Kip Hawley, former Administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, sums it up: “Bag match has been a pillar of aviation security for three decades. It is still a plus for security, but improvements in detection technology, screening practice, aircraft construction and the prevalence of suicide bombers combine to make the security cost/benefit equation of bag match less demonstrable.”

John Vermilye was head of baggage for Eastern Air Lines when, in 1985, Air India 182 was lost to a bomb concealed in checked luggage. As a result, the industry, led by IATA, the ATA (now A4A) and ACI, created the Baggage Security Working Group (BSWG) to overhaul industry procedures for which Vermilye was elected Chairman. In 1988 he was recruited to IATA as Manager Baggage and subsequently served as IATA’s Senior Vice President. In 2002-2003 Vermilye was part of the Roll Out Team of industry executives recruited to set up the TSA and worked on the HBS programme. Following his TSA assignment, in 2003, based on a request from the luggage industry, Vermilye set up the Travel Sentry system of standards for luggage locks now used by security agencies globally.

References:
Air India 182/Narita Bombing 1985, The Death of Air India Flight 182, Author: Salim Jiwa Publisher: Star (1986)
Eastern Airlines luggage Bomb – Guatemala City Airport 1981, Chronologies of Modern Terrorism, Authors: Barry Rubin, Judith Colp Rubin, Publisher: Rutledge 2015