Automated Baggage Check-in at Qantas

Qantas Auto Bag Drops

Check-In and Bag Drop without Queuing

Many passengers equate the airport experience with endless queues in front of check-in counters. In Sydney, this is a thing of the past. For almost two years, Qantas Airways has been using automatic baggage check-in points, so-called Auto Bag Drops. Even inexperienced passengers drop off their luggage in 35-40 seconds – frequent flyers using RFID tags even manage the drop in less than 15 seconds. The new systems including IT and baggage logistics were developed and installed by ICM Airport Technics Australia.

Qantas has elected to rely on the automatic bag drop system at all major airports in Australia, i.e. in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Canberra and Adelaide. “When we started the next generation check-in project in 2009, our aim was to cut waiting times for air travelers in half,” explains Gabriella D’Alessandro, head of IT, QA Domestic and Operations at Qantas. “However, the new concept exceeded our expectations.” Passengers now handle of the actual check-in – seat selection and boarding card printing – on their own online or at one of the airline’s terminals, known as a “kiosk”. Baggage is checked in at the Auto Bag Drop systems. By scanning the barcode on the boarding card, the passenger’s flight and boarding details are checked. The system then prompts passengers to place their luggage onto the scale conveyor. Dimensions and weight are checked automatically. If the baggage exceeds the free baggage allowance, the system gives the passenger the opportunity to repack or to purchase an excess baggage ticket. The additional cost is also calculated and billed directly at the self-service kiosk. The system also prints a “heavy” sticker as needed to identify the luggage as overweight. The conveyor then transports the luggage to the airport’s internal baggage handling system.

Paperless flight

“In addition to the standard barcode-based procedures, we had already considered an RFID variant in the first concept draft,” explains Richard Dinkelmann, Managing Director of ICM Airport Technics Australia Pty Ltd. “Frequent Flyers come very close to our vision of ‘paperless flight’.” The Q Card (Frequent Flyer Card) issued by Qantas with an integrated RFID chip shortens the check-in process significantly. By simply holding the card to the ‘Automatic Check-in’ reader, the passenger’s data is read. The system then automatically checks the flight booked for the corresponding day. “As soon as the light changes from red to green, the passenger knows that the flight is active and that he or she has been checked in,” Ms. D’Alessandro explains. “No other input or print-outs are needed because the Q Card also serves as the boarding card.”

The Q Card can also be used at the Auto Bag Drop systems to call up the corresponding menu and complete luggage check-in by answering a few basic questions. An additional advantage is also the luggage tags, so-called “Permanent Bag Tags” or “Q Bag Tags”. Each round plastic tag has an integrated RFID chip and can be attached to the bag using an integrated rubber loop. They replace the usual luggage stickers. The reusable Permanent Bag Tags are free issued to certain levels of frequent flyers and are offered for sale at the airport or online for other passengers. Regardless of whether passengers log on to the Auto Bag Drop system using a Q Card or boarding card, all relevant data, such as the passenger’s name, flight number and destination, are stored on the RFID chip. “The Permanent Bag Tags are very popular with our passengers because they make time-consuming print-outs and time-intensive applying of baggage tags a thing of the past,” Ms. D’Alessandro explains. “Over the past two years, we have already issued 1.5 million Permanent Bag Tags.”

Behind the scenes

The accelerated baggage check-in has also had an impact on logistics processes behind the scenes at the airport. The conveyors of the Auto Bag Drop feed a central collecting belt conveyor behind the hall’s wall that directs luggage to the central sorting station. At this point, the information on the permanent bag tags or the stick-on luggage labels is read out again, and the baggage is sorted by destination and departure station. “After replacing conventional check-in terminals with Auto Bag Drops, the hourly baggage throughput increased significantly,” explains Mr. Dinkelmann. “It was thus necessary to set up buffer zones upstream from the sorting system. This prevents backups during peak periods which could ultimately result in the system’s refusal to accept baggage at the Auto Bag Drops.”

The history of an idea

At the start of the development in 2009, ICM won the competitive bid. In just 10 months, the company acted as main contractor developed the Auto Bag Drops as well as the IT system and managed other service providers, like the manufacturer of the specialized conveyors required. Qantas now has 80 Auto Bag Drops in operation at six Australian airports. Since starting service in July 2010, more than 9 million pieces of baggage have been processed. The Auto Bag Drop system from ICM is thus today the global market leader in the area of automatic baggage check-in. “It wasn’t just the development phase that convinced us. ICM also gave convincing performance in the implementation with their detailed knowledge of the process and suggestions for continuous improvement,” emphasizes Ms D’Alessandro. “The company exceeded our expectations in every area – schedule, budget and technology.”

Security and outlook

The new check-in process using kiosks and Auto Bag Drop systems has considerably reduced waiting times for Qantas passengers in Sydney and five other Australian airports. Queues are hardly to be found anywhere in the airport halls today. Qantas profits not only from the resulting corporate image benefits. Roving Agents are available to assist should passengers have any difficulties using the new equipment. A further benefit is the improved and faster passenger check-in experience, which allows passengers to spend more time in the retail and leisure areas of the airport terminal.

To date Qantas has used the Auto Bag Drop system exclusively for domestic flights. ”We at ICM are constantly working on improving our Auto Bag Drop systems. We are currently testing our solution for multiple airlines and international flights at London Heathrow, for example,” explains Mr. Dinkelmann. “Biometric verification of passengers is currently under development for the trial at Heathrow. Additional innovation potential also exists for the RFID baggage tags. In this case, experts for airport logistics are currently working on an RFID tag which is capable of displaying information on an integrated display. “Over the next few years, check-in and baggage check-in will become a rapid and uncomplicated process worldwide,” Mr Dinkelmann explains.

“Qantas, ICM and other suppliers have paved the way for other airlines to use the new technologies in check-in – Auto Bag Drop as well as RFID technologies – by proving the benefits on a large scale for the airport of the future.”