Baggage Reclaim: An Underestimated Risk?

Until studying aviation security at university, it never truly hit me just how flawed baggage reclaim currently is. In many international airports, limited to no checks take place, and the arrivals hall can become a prime and easy target for theft. I’ll look at some changes which could improve and reduce the risks.

Stansted Airport – Credit: Oxfordian Kissuth (see below)

Theft from criminal individuals and even gang operations is a big threat to airport security. With the prices of flights decreasing more and more over time, gaining access to air-side terminal facilities is no longer an expensive nor difficult task.

The question I ask is, if it’s so easy for potential offenders to snoop around the baggage hall after their cheap £19.99 Ryanair flight, why are we still throwing luggage onto carousels for any smart and efficient wrongdoers to get their hands on unnoticed?

It’s estimated that every year more than a thousand bags are stolen from UK airports – a number that may continue to rise as thieves perfect their deception strategies and slip under the radar of airport police.

In a study by Research Without Barriers on 2,005 passengers travelling to/from the UK, it was estimated that the average value of checked-in luggage is £535. That £19.99 Ryanair ticket suddenly sounds like a hell of a good deal. Bearing this in mind, it should be a priority to secure passengers bags and valuables from theft.

Some nations worldwide do impose checks on arriving passengers to ensure they are leaving with a bag belonging to them – but this in itself brings its disadvantages. I firmly believe that the answer has to lie in technology. Checking each passenger as they leave the premises could well be hugely disadvantageous in decreasing the efficient journey of passengers through the airport and also require more security staff to do the job.

So what can be done? One thought I came up with was a ‘Check-Out’ system in which passengers scan their boarding pass upon arrival at reclaim, and their luggage isn’t put onto the conveyor until their arrival there. This would be advantageous in both ensuring passengers are there to supervise their bag onto the carousel belt, and also ensure bags aren’t taking up valuable space on the belt when their owners haven’t even arrived. It does however mean that a separate belt would be needed behind the scenes, which would then release the bags of any present passengers onto the public carousel. This of course could be considered wasted space and unnecessary investment to many.

Another solution I thought of was electronic gates exiting the baggage reclaim hall, in which passengers would scan their boarding pass on a scanner and then scan their luggage tag. If the two aren’t matching flags can be raised and staff can be on hand to question the passenger and sort the issue out. Whilst this would be a simple fix to the issue it would also bring with it several downsides. It brings in more possibility of bottlenecks and queue build ups, which in the post Covid-19 world is something very much not desirable to airports. It also would require a staff member on hand to ensure passengers aren’t walking out without scanning their luggage tags as well (though I would argue there should always be a staff member on hand ensuring the security and safety of the baggage hall anyway).

My final suggestion and probably the one I believe is most plausible is a system in which luggage tags contain a small alarm chip, similar to that in retail clothing stores, in which a receptor in the passengers boarding pass acts as a device to deactivate the alarm and allow the passenger to continue their journey with their own bags and without a fuss. Whilst I believe this to be the most plausible solution, staff would be needed to ensure passengers aren’t prematurely ripping off luggage tags, and this would need to be figured out in a way that wouldn’t increase the cost for passengers too much.

Whatever happens, I definitely believe this is an area in need of a solution. It needs to be well thought out, properly planned, and vigorously tested before it is introduced to the masses worldwide. I am certain that the answer to the problem is technology in some way shape or form – how it will be implemented is another question altogether. But above all any technology implemented cannot allow security staff to become complacent and miss the key signs of suspicious activity and luggage theft.

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Image used: ‘Gepäckausgabe am Stansted Airport im Oktober 2011’ by Oxfordian Kissuth. View here. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. View license. Image cropped.

I'm an avid writer and airport fanatic. I'm currently studying Airline and Airport Management at Bucks New University and hope to work in airport operations in the future.

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