An Integrated Approach to Baggage Handling Projects

Baggage handling systems are an essential element to an airport’s effective operation. Yet, many traditionally managed baggage handling projects are still delivering uninspired designs, unnecessarily high implementation costs, and excessive disruption, leaving operators to manage the consequences and passengers suffering. However, one UK based baggage handling consultancy believes its ‘integrated project’ approach offers a far better solution, and recent projects at Heathrow indicate that they have a point.

There can be no doubt that airport baggage handling projects are becoming increasingly more complex. Handling technology is advancing rapidly, and airports are demanding ever greater performance from both the specific handling systems, and the overall baggage transfer process. Additionally stricter cost targets, shorter project timescales, more stringent health and safety requirements, and the need to install new systems within existing building confines, and around existing equipment without causing too much disruption, often add significantly to this complexity. Yet, while the challenges have grown markedly, the processes and management practices employed to deliver these projects have typically remained unchanged. The result is that too many system designs actually fail to provide the required ‘end product’, while cost and time overruns remain common and the disruption caused during installation excessive.

As Rob Millar, managing director of Millar Management, a Baggage Handling System Consultancy, explains, “Most projects are now just too broad in their scope, and involve too many specialisms, for individual contractors working in a segmented process, and traditional project managers, to effectively manage in detail from concept to completion.” Millar believes what is now needed to ensure that baggage projects deliver well designed ‘systems’ that can meet all the performance targets, and are installed within time and budget, is a far more ‘integrated’ product delivery process, and a more holistic approach to managing the project. In practice, this means a single dedicated team undertaking all  the key early project phases, including detailed ‘up front’ feasibility, concept development and detail design, and then the same team employing their ‘end product’ perspective to proactively manage the implementation phase.

While such a project approach is still far from widely adopted, it encompasses recognised principles. For instance, the seminal Egan report ‘Re-thinking Construction’, produced in the late 90s, highlighted that the efficiency of project delivery is often constrained by the largely separated processes through which they are generally planned, designed and constructed. One of its proposed recommendations, as a ways for reducing project costs, time and defects, was the need for integrating the project processes and teams. Moreover, this process has now been proven. Over the past few years, Millar Management have applied their methods to a number of major projects, with great success.

A prime example of this is the recent redesign and upgrade to the Shelterspan baggage transfer facility at Heathrow’s Terminal 3. The existing facility was facing major problems due a significant rise in the number of airlines using Terminal 3 and the resulting growth in the terminal’s transfer baggage. Improvements were needed and fast. Brought in BAA to help deliver this, Millar Management were able to rapidly develop and manage the implementation of a solution that solved the operations core problems, delivering massive capacity and efficiency improvements, without the need for a complete re-build. Moreover, the whole project was completed to extremely tight time constraints, without major disruption to the ongoing operation of the facility, and well under the original budget.

As Neil Porter, BAA’s Development Manager for Shelterspan, reports, “Typically this type of project would take a year just to get to the start of build. Millar Management were able to push Shelterspan through from inception to actual completion within 10 months, while still meeting, or improving upon, all of the project’s targets.” Not surprisingly, Shelterspan is now seen as having set a precedent for future BAA Framework projects, and is seen as ‘a benchmark of how BAA want future baggage handling projects delivered.’

Theory in Practice

The first fundamental aspect to Millar’s integrated approach is the need for the delivery team to spend time and effort ‘up front’ establishing a clear understanding of the real project requirements. In the case of Shelterspan this meant that during the feasibility study the team not only worked closely with Heathrow’s Connecting Baggage team and the Shelterspan management, but also spent considerable time at the existing facility, seeing what was actually in place, watching the operation, talking to the operators, and determining both the facilities deficiencies and good aspects.

As Millar states, “There is only so much you can do with prior knowledge and experience, and it does not matter how much technical data there is, if you never go near the existing system, or talk in detail to the operators, you can never fully understand what is happening. And, without this understanding it is just not possible to develop solutions that are sympathetic to the operation and meet all the various stakeholder requirements.”

This key point was emphasised by the findings of the early work at Shelterspan. The operation’s practical capacity was regularly being exceeded, with both internal baggage queues, and long lines of vans and trucks waiting to offload bags. The general perception was that only limited improvements could be achieved without a major expansion of the whole facility. However, Millar’s team were able to determine that significant extra capacity could actually be achieved if a number of core problems were properly addressed. For instance, a lack of conveyor line flexibility was leading to unnecessary queues, while no pre-sorting meant that the operators at the flight make up area were not only expected to sort the bags to the appropriate flights, but also had to deal with all the early bags (those for much later flights) and even bags that should have been sent to other terminals. Equally, there was no ‘flow’ to the process of offloading bags into the facility, and combined with basic layout errors and poor ergonomic design, this was reducing potential throughput and creating significant queues.

“We recognised that we could create a far more efficient operation by eliminating the wasted effort and tapping into the existing but latent capacity within the system, states Millar. Moreover, he adds, “This approach also offered a way to achieve the required performance, while fitting the enhancements within the existing building, and so meeting the time and budget constraints.”

With feasibility completed, the same team then rapidly developed a number of concept designs that offered various levels of improvement. “Because the team had obviously taken the time to fully understand the facility and our requirements, deciding on the solution to take forward was a relatively straight forward and fast process,” recalls Porter. He adds, “The concepts were clear and already addressed all the issues that we would normally have to ask for extra information on, even to the extent of being ‘future proofed’ and including extra flexibility and space that would allow potential future capacity increases to be met without major re-work.”

Delivering the Solution

In line with the integrated approach, the Millar team were also key players in the detailed design stage. By combining their first hand understanding of the existing facility, along with baggage handling and architectural experience and knowledge, and by working closely with the potential subcontractors, this approach ensured that the project rapidly progressed through design to implementation. It also enabled effective Value Engineering to be undertaken.

As Porter states, “We found that because the Millar team fully understood the concepts behind the designs, they were able to ‘value engineer’ many different aspects. For instance, instead of the standard hard wearing floor typically used, they were able to work with the flooring contractor to find a different solution that still exceeded requirements, but was more economical. Equally, they were able to achieve to the same result with the structural steelwork, the electrical system and so on.”

This same advantage, of fully understanding the ‘end product’ requirements and design intent, was also a major factor in enabling Millar’s team to effectively manage the installation and commissioning of the enhanced Shelterspan facility. This was perhaps the most difficult aspect of the project, with both overall time constraints and the need to ensure that the operation was kept running throughout, with contractors having to work to an agreed multi-phase installation plan.

For a start, the early and detailed concept design and planning work helped ensure that all the contractors, airlines and baggage operators understood what was happening, when, their exact roles and responsibilities. Also, as well as monitoring the ongoing progress of each element, the delivery teams unique complete view of the whole project enabled it to pay much closer attention to the various interfaces between the activities of different contractors. According to Millar, “This is something that is often not well managed, because typical project managers do not fully understand the design ‘intent’, and as a result naturally follow the given design, even if it is flawed, ambiguous or contradictory. But, in this project we were able to step in early on a number of occasions to solve design inconsistencies, which if left could have resulted in considerable re-work for one contractor or another.”

Finally, the ‘integrated’ project approach adopted, which included the maintenance of good communications between all the various stakeholders and contractors, engendered a wider team spirit between all the parties involved. “Overall, this was a real team effort. Everyone got in mind to pull together and rigidly stick to plan, and this is exactly what was achieved,” states Millar.

The now fully operation enhanced facility, has reconfigured HBS lines, an in feed bar code screening station to automatically pre-sort most of the T3 and ITO bags, and a dedicated early bag store, feed through another automated sorting system. Internally, these additions have delivered a far more balanced system, removed congestion, and the make up operators can now concentrate on their main task, which is allocating ‘live’ bags to flights. Externally, new in feed arrangements have not only increased the number of offload points, but have introduced more ergonomically designed conveyor arrangements, and created a recognisable flow to the vehicle movements for dropping off and collection. The overall result is that the facilities throughput capacity has been almost doubled, both internal and external queues eliminated, and demand is now  being met without the need for extra manpower.

As Porter confirms, “While this was always a limited scope project, looking for improvements that would provide a few years breathing space, what has actually been achieved in terms of performance gains has been far greater than originally anticipated. Added to this, not only was the implementation completed on schedule, with minimal disruption, the final solution cost was actually around 33% lower than the initial (a-day) budget set.”

He concludes, “The obvious key to the success of this project, which had considerable complexities and risks, was the high level of integration, of both process and skills, that the Millar Management team brought to it from feasibility through to implementation. This has not been typically achieved in past projects, even when a single company has been managing it.”