The role of technology in the transformation of airports and travel is critical to revolutionise the world of baggage, argues Randel Darby, chief executive and founder of AirPortr, a baggage collection service provider
For much of the pandemic, airports were closed and planes were grounded, so to say that that the pandemic has been challenging for the travel industry would be an understatement. And yet, the long-awaited ‘re-start’ of international travel has presented its own challenges. Airport passenger processing times have often doubled to nearly three hours – an inconceivable amount of time pre-Covid.
Airlines and airports are now thinking strategically about how to handle this challenge – as well as ongoing and renewed pressure to become more sustainable. Is now the time the industry finally tackles digitisation head-on?
The big issue: legacy infrastructure
Despite being stunted and delayed by the mammoth task of addressing legacy infrastructure and a regulatory environment that is not conducive to innovation, the appetite to digitise and innovate has always been present. In fact, the industry is discussing – and in some cases implementing – a raft of customer-centric technologies that will help air travel get back on its feet more sustainably, whilst simultaneously streamlining the passenger experience.
Baggage is an area that always seems to fall to the bottom of everyone’s list. It has been historically neglected as part of the airport and airline ‘underbelly’, but this way of thinking has led to the creation of unsustainable business models and gaps in the customer experience that can no longer be ignored. Earlier this year, a number of strategic partners along with Future Travel Experience launched an industry-wide set of working groups to help process pioneering ideas and visions into reality.
The truth is, getting baggage from doorstep to plane is still a very manual process – especially for passengers. Baggage still comes through the front door and is handled through the same system; it is still being rolled in cages at airports or delivered airside using vans as it was decades ago. Add to that the cost and space implications of these processes and you suddenly have a very un-sexy product offering.
Terminals are built to handle passengers and bags together in one vertically integrated space, but with this come enhanced security requirements and huge fluctuations in demand depending on the time of day and time of year. Baggage infrastructure consumes valuable space and energy in terminals, and a significant footprint is built and maintained to handle peak baggage volumes – often costing an airport tens of millions of dollars.
By digitising baggage in the same way as other parts of the traveller’s journey (think online check-in), airlines have the opportunity to turn baggage processing from a cost to a profit centre, and from a pain-point to a seamless customer experience. Airlines and airports can drive operating and cost efficiencies, open new revenue streams, and reduce the impact of loss and damage claims which are estimated to cost the industry billions of dollars each year.
The off-site processing of baggage, where bags are collected from passengers’ homes and then processed through Amazon-style fulfilment centres for instance, will enable airport terminals to have significantly fewer baggage drop-off points and on-site processing units. Not only will this allow for the reduction of real estate and contributions towards net zero strategies, it will also enhance the passenger experience in terminals.
The off-airport baggage market is undoubtedly developing at pace, but the industry has become something of a graveyard for failed off-airport baggage proofs of concept (PoCs). At the heart of any off-airport proposition, there needs to be a customer focus to drive success, and this is arguably where previous PoCs have failed. Communicating the product offering clearly, and building customer awareness and trust in these products, is critical if off-airport propositions are to become commonplace.
A vision for the future
If we have learned anything through these uncertain times, it is that technology will become an increasingly integral part of the passenger journeys of the future. For instance, up until two years ago, the use of biometrics in airports, for example, was in its infancy. But with the need to digitally verify identities tied to Covid test results or health passports, and contactless processes now critical to preventing the transmission of Coronavirus, biometric technology has gone mainstream: 73% of passengers are now willing to share their biometric data in order to improve airport processes. Recently at Istanbul Airport, biometrics were introduced to enable passengers to scan their faces at every step of their journey without having to touch any surfaces, which led to a 30% reduction in passenger boarding times.
Introducing self-service baggage tracers, such as those introduced with the Lufthansa Group, will allow passengers to file a missing bag report in moments by submitting their flight, baggage and passenger details into an app on their smartphone, eliminating the need for lengthy queues in terminals when a bag does go awry. If passenger and baggage identity data can be tied together, suddenly you unlock concepts that remove the need for lost bag reports, such as: tagless bag identification and tracking; bag image sharing; notification to passengers when a bag is mishandled; and automated service recovery.
Creating convenient and fast bag drop zones, either kerbside or outside key transportation hubs, will allow customers to drop off their luggage securely before travelling bag-free through to security, again eliminating the need for lengthy queues at check-in desks.
However, this vision involves changing customer behaviour and building trust in these reliable alternatives. A seamless, consistent digital experience, comprehensive tracking, and brand-authority all help to achieve this.
Benefits beyond the airport experience
Industry leaders may have been given brief respite from the green agenda over recent years, with various lockdowns temporarily curbing emissions and taking the world’s attention elsewhere. However, as travel has reopened over the past weeks, the sector is once again under intense scrutiny.
Great strides are being made with sustainable aviation fuels and reducing the contribution flights make towards pollution, but what about on-the-ground operations? One idea currently at the top of industry minds is the use of electric vehicles for baggage pickup and delivery in urban areas. Pair this with the creation of baggage hubs and transportation networks which use autonomous vehicles or rail to link cities and airports, and you can unlock super low-cost and low-footprint delivery models.
The industry is also considering systems where baggage is delivered from cities and other on-airport locations (ie car parks and hotels) into fulfilment centres that will have a high degree of automation, with workflows for the screening and processing of departing and arriving baggage. Robotics can pre-build ULDs which are ‘called’ for flights when loading commences. This may all sound futuristic, but it is within our grasp.
One of the most stringent, tangible and immediate benefits is to change the way passengers get to the airport. Without baggage in tow, passengers can travel hands-free to and through airports, with terminals becoming increasingly passenger-only spaces. More ride-sharing or intermodal journeys into airports will become available. For example, 66% of AirPortr users say they switched from car usage to public transport as a result of travelling bag-free.
By making technology the bedrock of operations, airlines, airports and the various organisations that make up the aviation ecosystem are unlocking a world of opportunity.
But the question of how transformative the next decade will be for baggage will be determined by the actions of the industry; airports need to get ahead in providing infrastructure for these services or risk falling behind, while airlines need to integrate these ideas into their digital and ancillary strategies now. And governments and authorities like IATA need to build standards – from vetting and training to security and data collection – in order to help products evolve fast.
About the author: Before starting AirPortr, Randel Darby spent years working in private equity in London and overseas. His only prior experience of the travel and transportation industry was as a passenger. High-frequency business travel led him to become increasingly frustrated with the whole experience, particularly when it came to baggage. Lugging bags to and from airports and around city centres was both stressful and time-consuming. It seemed outdated, in an age where we have convenient services at our fingertips. So he created AirPortr, a baggage collection service the customer controls via a mobile phone app.