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Baggage screening: The key to more efficient airports?

Andrew Goldsmith

More than 640 million domestic air passengers hoped for a timely departure in 2012, and yet few ever considered a key part of the security process that makes timely departures possible: screening of baggage that goes into the “hold” of an airplane (more commonly known in the U.S. as “checked” baggage.) 

Passengers tend to focus on the most visible aspect of the screening process -- the security checkpoint -- which includes person and carry-on inspection. For travelers, hold baggage screening, or HBS, is more of an afterthought, the checkpoint’s “silent partner.” But, for airport officials, ineffective HBS processes have far-reaching repercussions: flight delays, lost bags, even cancellations. In fact, given the interdependency of flight scheduling, a single airport’s struggles with HBS could lead to operational inefficiencies and traveler dissatisfaction throughout the entire air travel system. 

Another little known fact: improving the capabilities of hold baggage screening has been a major focus of investment -- both by governments and private industry. TSA, for example, has budgeted hundreds of millions of dollars to support airport improvements and the acquisition of new HBS systems. 

The European Union has implemented a rigorous technology certification process, and is requiring European airports to implement significantly improved HBS technology, starting in September 2014.  

As with many aspects of airport security, the terrorist attacks of September 2001 re-defined the need for HBS. While many airports had basic HBS systems in place, in truth airports screened only five percent of hold baggage. Today, the law requires 100 percent of hold baggage be inspected, and not just by a traditional HBS system, but one equipped with explosives detection. 

Technologically, this created a problem, exacerbated by the fact that legacy HBS systems were already struggling to meet the growing number of air travelers (732 million predicted in 2013, with as many as 1.2 billion by 2032). 

Further complicating the issue, baggage handling systems -- which transport bags from the airline’s check-in desk to the screening area and onto the proper flight -- often run parallel with baggage screening systems. Even when these two systems are “integrated,” they don’t always function as one. For instance, the vast majority of HBS systems cannot run at the maximum preferred speed of baggage handling systems, which leads to constricted overall throughput.   

But the good news for airports still working to upgrade their screening systems is the continuing burst of innovation with regard to HBS and, specifically, explosives detection systems (EDS), both in technology and design. When planning an upgrade, here are three key factors to consider: 


For maximum efficiency, an airport’s HBS system must operate at the same speed as its baggage handling system, many of which can process up to 1,800 bags per hour. In addition, an HBS system must be scalable, quelling the need for a “rip and replace,” as passenger volume rises.   


Whereas airports once had to choose between scanning system efficiency and image quality, today’s advances in technology allow for both high speeds and high-resolution imagery. Higher-quality images lead to fewer false alarms, which speeds up the process even further. 

Spatial optimization

A small-footprint HBS system allows for maximal space conservation and minimal component purchasing. Currently, the legacy HBS systems found in many airports are only capable of scanning up to 600 bags per hour. With nearly three times that number of bags coming through at peak travel times, airports often find themselves with multiple baggage screeners. Selecting a high speed HBS system, with the ability to operate for the maximum capacity, means fewer machines will be needed, saving space for other airport operations.  

Global air travelers have come to expect strict security at U.S. airports, but that doesn’t mean they no longer appreciate efficiency. As airports look to future-proof their infrastructure for growing traffic, efficiency needs to be given as much consideration as security. By doing so, airports can ensure that passenger bags are threat-free while arriving at a given plane on time, thereby eliminating flight delays due to baggage screening and lost luggage issues. 

And passengers will always appreciate a timely departure -- even if they never realize how it happened. 

Andrew Goldsmith is vice president of marketing at Rapiscan Systems. He can be reached at:

[email protected]



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