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The baggage handling system at an airport plays a crucial role in keeping travellers happy and can also can make the difference in an airport's fight to win or retain its status as a hub. This has been at the forefront of thinking at BAA, the UK airport group, which aims to make the new Terminal 5 at London Heathrow, “the world's most successful airport development”.

But coming up with a system capable of shuffling the luggage of 30m passengers a year along 18km of conveyor belt is no easy task, and BAA was keen to avoid headaches. “We’ve learned from the mistakes of past projects such as Denver International Airport in the mid-90s where problems with the automated baggage system helped delay the opening of the airport for two years,” says Martin Johnson, technical leader for baggage at BAA.

With this in mind, BAA has chosen a partnership with a proven record in keeping baggage moving. Vanderlande of the Netherlands and IBM have worked together on several air transport projects, most notably the successful redevelopment of baggage handling at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport.

While Vanderlande specialises in low-level control systems that manage specific equipment such as conveyor belts and baggage carts, IBM was brought in for its expertise in higher-tier control systems capable of handling the sophisticated tools needed for luggage identification and routing, flight transfers and security.

IBM set about the project by combining lessons it had learnt from the Schiphol development with new custom-designed solutions for BAA. Its software controls automatic barcode scanning, collating useful data on an individual bag that can then be used to determine its itinerary.

The system decides whether a checked bag is early, on time or time-critical and then prioritises its route accordingly. Early bags are sent to a holding room until they are needed, while urgent luggage is directed straight to the hold of a waiting plane by conveyor belt - a task done by hand at other airports.

The design also assists “peakshaving” whereby an airport tries to lessen the impact of two or three peak travel times by ensuring bags do not all arrive at once. The innovation aims to cut down transfer times. With four or five hub airports in Europe competing for transferring customers, reducing the connection time between flights becomes a priority making the timely handling of baggage a critical factor.

“The better you control the transfer, the better the connection time and the more likely the customer is to book a flight. That's why much of the focus of the IT is supporting minimising connection times,” says Hans Deijkers, travel consultant at IBM Business Consulting Services.

IBM has also come up with the rules for luggage security. While there will be a 100 per cent screening at Terminal 5, the system uses factors such as shape and size to determine whether an item requires extra clearance. Unlike other baggage handling networks, it will be able to track an individual bag thoughout the process and remove it if an alert is raised or it has been routed incorrectly.

The developers stress that a core aspect of the system is its ability to respond to changes in circumstance. “There are all sorts of tools to foresee bottlenecks and predict how many people will be needed for unloading,” says Mr Deijkers.

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