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25 January 2020

Air Travel, Lost Baggage, Blockchain and Shorts

Or how we will no longer have to fear wearing shorts to an important out of town business meeting

We’ve made tremendous advances in all areas of aviation over the past couple of decades by leveraging the latest digital technologies for improved safety, security, convenience and passenger experience. Even so, if you’re traveling on business during the summer, there’s always that anxiety (even paranoia) that your luggage will get lost and you’ll end up having to attend that important meeting in shorts. Or the other way around, if you’re going on a winter getaway from someplace cold (like Montreal) to a sunny destination, you might worry about not having shorts to wear!

At least if you’re flying into a city and your baggage gets lost, you can buy new stuff to tide you over until your baggage is found.  That’s not that case if your dream vacation is somewhere really out of the way, like an African safari. There are more connections involved in such a journey, to smaller airlines traveling to smaller airports in remote places. Not only is the potential for lost baggage multiplied, you might not be able to find a mall nearby.

According to IATA’s 2019 Global Passenger Survey, based on feedback from 10,877 air passengers in 166 countries, 53% said they’d be more likely to check their baggage if they were able to track it over their entire journey. The U.S. Department of Transportation reported 2,275,231 items “lost, damaged, delayed, and pilfered, as reported by or on behalf of the passenger, that were in the airline’s custody for its reportable domestic nonstop scheduled passenger flight” during the period from January to September 2019.

Even though airlines are 70% less likely to lose baggage than they were even 10 years ago, there’s still that feeling of relief when you see yours coming down the chute onto the carousel. It’s not just that you have your stuff and can get on with your trip — it’s that you’re not going to have to go through the ordeal of tracking down whoever can track it down and hope they can, and soon.

Another relevant key finding in the IATA survey is that passengers want to have more personal control over their journey via their smart phones. Travelers take for granted that they can book (or reschedule) flights and hotels, order a ride share, and even check their doorbell cameras from their phones. They trust the information they’ll get is accurate and based on real-time data — and they trust that the data they send is secure.

As things stand, being able to track baggage in the same way, with pinpoint accuracy and with an assurance of data security, is significantly more difficult, given the number of actors involved — let alone do it all in real time. Even so, IATA Resolution 753, which came into force on June 1, 2018, requires airlines to track baggage at four touchpoints during the journey, with the aim to reduce the amount of lost and damaged baggage. Resolution 753 also requires that this information be shared among other carriers and actors involved.

Some airlines and airports have already gone the extra mile in improving baggage tracking. Let’s make it universal. Passengers should be as confident checking their baggage at the airport as they are depositing money into their bank accounts. They need to know it will be there when and where they need it. If we can further reduce (if not eliminate) that very particular type of anxiety that the mere possibility of baggage mishandling causes passengers, we can improve customer experience in a way that can’t be quantified. Convenience is another key component of customer experience, and passengers should be able to access all relevant information on the status and location of their baggage at any point, from anywhere and on any device.

Most short and long baggage journeys will be seamless. This being said, over the course a baggage item’s journey, the number of touchpoints throughout a baggage journey allows for so much to go wrong. 

The solution is actually found in the problem. In this case, part of the issue lies in the fact that there are several entities that our baggage has to go through during a “baggage journey”, so let’s use this as the stepping stone. 

The root of the problem is that multiple different actors handle bags as they’re transported from A to B. This is can be tricky enough, but when there’s a C and a D and even other points along the journey (like the African safari), it can be close to impossible. Multiply these by how many actors are involved — from airlines and airports to baggage handlers and customer service representatives — then add in geography, and the difficulty of effectively tracking baggage in real time grows exponentially. Since each airline has its own baggage tracking system, it’s easy for those things that go wrong to cause a ripple effect and totally derail a passenger’s trip, particularly when it comes to flight connections in which their items are handed off to another airline. In fact, SITA reports that 47% of baggage mishandling occurs during transfer at connecting airports.

The technology to create a truly robust and reliable next-generation baggage tracking system is here and we would like to present our vision. Real-time baggage tracking systems can leverage the latest Blockchain technology and Microsoft Power Platform to provide passengers, airports, airlines and regulatory agencies with a game-changing solution to one of the aviation industry’s biggest pain points. What’s more, this kind of application showcases Power Platform’s versatility that dramatically simplifies development while amplifying the potential of diverse applications throughout the aviation industry and beyond.

For a general idea of how a real-time baggage tracking system would use Blockchain to do this, we can think of the traveler’s journey (and that of their baggage, of course) like a series of scenes in a larger scenario. Different actors come in and out of the picture, with everyone performing their own respective parts. The first scene, of course, is boarding. When you check your baggage, a new actor – the airline – comes onto the scene. A real-time baggage tracking system would make it possible to receive an RFID tag for each of your items, and even a beacon-like GPS tracker as an extra precaution. Then, your baggage is carted off to the airport’s baggage handlers in a giant room, with its own automated system, before being tossed onto a roller-coaster of a conveyor to be loaded onto the plane.

All baggage handled by the airport would loaded into the right plane based on the RFID tags on the suitcases. An airport employee would be responsible for making sure all baggage is loaded on the plane, and passengers could use a mobile app to determine if their baggage is traveling with them.

Where a real-time baggage tracking system’s use of Blockchain would really shine is when something unexpected occurs. For example, someone might have to leave the plane due to overbooking or illness, and obviously their baggage needs to follow them. In this case, their items could be located — and fast — thanks to the RFID tag, and regardless of why they had to disembark, the passenger would at least know their personal items won’t be going off on vacation without them. That would certainly reduce the stress of whatever went wrong and improve that unfortunate passenger’s experience (even a less-than-ideal one) by at least not making it worse.

A new scene opens at the airport of the dreaded connecting flight. It’s bad enough that even the slightest delays in arrival can cause a missed connection, or at the very least a sprint through a terminal (and sometimes to another terminal). Even if you make it onto the plane for your connecting flight, has your baggage? Ideally, baggage is rerouted to the passenger’s next destination, but even when flights arrive on time, so many other things can happen. Bad weather can lead to canceled flights across the board, and passengers might get stuck at the connecting airport until they can get a flight the next day (assuming the weather clears up). It’s one thing to get set up and try and get comfortable for a long night in the departure lounge, but what about your baggage? Is it still on the plane? Was it unloaded? Is the plane even still there? Does the airport have it? If so, where is it? And who would know? The airline or the airport? Shouldn’t everyone involved have a record?  Wouldn’t it be fantastic if I could instantly be reassured by being informed of the exact location of my baggage through a mobile app? 

With a real-time baggage tracking system, passengers could locate and track their items using a mobile app and know that everything’s arrived along with them even before they reach the baggage carousel.

Blockchain technology is conceived to handle data collected from and shared between multiple parties using varied platforms and do so with absolute integrity. This baggage tracking system would use a decentralized Blockchain database that tracks the movements of all items, through the departure airport to the plane (and other planes) to the arrival airport, which would dramatically improve passenger experience.

It would create a unified system to further reduce the likelihood of lost baggage from the current 1% or so while making it easier to track down what does get lost (because it’s still going to happen). The experience for the various players in the aviation industry would also significantly improve as well, since the time, money and other resources saved by not having to trace lost baggage could be allocated to other areas of operation.

Blockchain technologies enable a transparent decentralized network for baggage items. The different parties involved (including the passenger, of course) could then track baggage, since the information wouldn’t be reconciled through separate siloed databases. Blockchain is also inherently safer, since there’s no central point of vulnerability or potential failure, and the data itself is resistant to modification or other unwanted tampering. Essentially, Blockchain keeps the data honest, while providing all involved with a rock-solid assurance of this integrity.

Blockchain also makes real-time global tracking possible and accessible to all actors involved, and with absolute data integrity. Developing an effective solution that uses Blockchain requires tools conceived for use with the latest technologies and able to accommodate the next ones just around the corner. Here’s where a baggage tracking system would leverage the full potential and versatility of Microsoft Power Platform.

Power Platform is a business analytics service that allows organizations to analyze, act on and automate their data. Three cloud-based services have been developed in order to implement the overall Power Platform vision in the form of the Analyze–Act–Automate trio. Power BI is the Analysis branch for data analysis, PowerApps is the Act branch for data management and Microsoft Flow is the Automate branch for business process automation.

What would really make this real-time baggage tracking system a true game-changer is that it would be global — figuratively and literally. This approach — integrated development using Power Platform, leveraging Blockchain to share data amongst all actors involved in the journey, to instant passenger access to real-time data, and all of this worldwide — would allow the baggage tracking system to bring together stakeholders’ existing systems. It would be a first-in-class, powerful and scalable “once and for all” solution.

As a passenger, have you ever had lost or mishandled baggage?

  • How long did it take for you to get it back (assuming you did), and what hoops did you have to jump through?
  • What features of a real-time baggage tracking system do you think could further improve passenger experience?
  • What other benefits do you think a global baggage tracking system could bring to the aviation industry as a whole?

As an airline or airport representative (or even baggage carrier supplier),  I am very curious to know about your perspective and thoughts on the subject.

  • What would change in today’s passenger journey, if such a global solution/tool were readily available across all airlines and airports, managed by a global entity?

Looking forward to reading your feedback and comments, and off we go — and bon voyage to all!

Karina Lemay,  Creative Dynamic Customer Centric Digital Transformation Enthusiast and AZUR Group Key Account Manager for IATA

Sebastien Lehoux, Senior Programmer-Analyst at AZUR Group and Power Plateform affectionado