Travelling by air without checked luggage is often a sensible goal, but sometimes you have no choice but to stow your bags in the hold. What happens to them once you've handed them over to a hassled check-in clerk?
The traditional answer to that question from weary travellers is often "they get sent to the wrong place" or "all the breakable stuff in them falls to pieces". While both scenarios are certainly possible -- I well remember getting called to the baggage services area after a highly-padded bottle of wine broke in my bag -- the fact that only 1.8% of baggage goes missing, according to the IATA, suggests that something is being done correctly.
Airports are understandably a bit twitchy about providing exact details of how their scanning and bagging track systems work, but I got a little insight into the process on a recent trip to New Zealand when I visited BCS, which develops software that helps control baggage systems, and interfaces those systems with other relevant technologies (such as airline booking systems and airport management). Around 70% of Australian airports use BCS technology to manage their systems.
Marc Michel, general manager international airport systems, demonstrated the company's "virtual airport" technology to me with a live simulation of the complete check-in and baggage tracking systems at Melbourne's international airport. Between where you drop off your bags and when they reach the planes, there's about 9 kilometres of conveyer belts, and multiple security checkpoints to identify problematic luggage.
The sample screenshot above shows what the software looks like (though in this case it's a shot of the airport at Brisbane, which is marginally less complicated), though it doesn't demonstrate the continual animation or the ability to zoom in on any part of the system or follow a specific bag through the process. The yellow bags have been flagged for further screening, while the red bags require manual screening.
While a key aim of the system is to scan bags for explosives or other dangerous substances, information gathered from continually running the systems can also be used to improve performance. For instance, with ongoing data about the time taken to process bags, manual intervention can be used to ensure that urgent baggage makes its way onto flights.
Software simulation has become a vital part of airport planning. BCS recently completed all the testing for the new baggage-handling systems at the low-cost terminal at the Gold Cost Airport at its own Auckland premises. That's particularly relevant with highly automated systems, such as the one used by Air New Zealand for domestic flights, which not only lets passengers check-in, but also allows them to drop off their own baggage without any staff intervention. (Sadly, security regulations in Australia mean we're unlikely to ever see a system that's quite that efficient.)
Admittedly, all the automation in the world isn't going to help you if a bottle of wine breaks in transit. However, despite not being particularly paranoid about the efficiency of baggage handling systems, I feel better about them after glancing at their virtual guts.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman knows all too well that 'priority' tags on luggage often aren't worth much more than boasting rights. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.