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What happens to checked luggage? USA TODAY got a look

by Staff

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You arrive at the airport and check in your bag. You wistfully watch as it travels down the conveyor belt and disappears behind a curtain of hanging rubber strips, wondering what happens next on its journey and if it will make it to your destination with you.

If you’re traveling through Terminal B at LaGuardia Airport in New York, there’s a very high likelihood that it will get where it’s going – or get to you – just fine. The terminal, which fully opened to the public in 2022 after being totally reconstructed, was designed with a state-of-the-art handling system that, according to one official, can fully track about 98% of the bags that pass through from the moment they’re checked to the moment they’re loaded onto the plane.

USA TODAY had the opportunity to visit the restricted areas of the airport where bags are processed and learn all about how they move from curb to plane and gate to carousel.

While our reporter and photographer didn’t get to fulfill their dreams of riding the 3.2 miles of conveyor belts themselves, they were still afforded an up-close look at every stage of the bag-handling process.

Checking in

“The baggage journey starts on the departure level,” Angelo Salgado, senior director of operations at LaGuardia Gateway Partners, told USA TODAY as he led the tour through the baggage claim system.

One thing that sets the system apart in Terminal B is floor-level baggage scales. It’s a small detail, but representatives from LaGuardia Gateway Partners, which is the developer and manager of the new terminal, said the system was designed to make the passenger experience as smooth as possible. No need to pick up your overweight suitcase – you can just roll it into place before you pay your fee.

The terminal has seven induction piers for regular baggage, two oversized bag check areas, curbside check-in, and a group check-in facility. After being ingested into the system, bags move on to the primary screening facility, an area that’s typically off-limits to the public.

Screening

The seven check-in piers funnel bags to two central mainline conveyors, which bring the bags into the screening room. First, every bag is scanned by an array of 10 cameras as it comes in, which allows the system to read the bar code, ensure the luggage is being routed to the right flight, and detect its dimensions. Oversized bags that somehow didn’t get sent to the large items belt at check-in will be flagged and rerouted automatically. Otherwise, they risk getting lodged in the machinery and backing up the screening of everything else.

Salgado said that 96% of bags can be tracked once they’re scanned, but that doesn’t mean the other 4% are necessarily lost. He said most of the scanning failures have to do with “bag hygiene” – things like improperly affixed or poorly printed bag tags, or tags that are somehow obscured during the intake scan, which can affect the ability of the system to track them.

In the main screening room, every appropriately-sized bag passes through a CTX machine, which looks similar to the newest generation of scanners travelers may see at Transportation Security Administration checkpoints upstairs. Most bags are cleared through the machine for loading, and the system automatically moves them along if there’s no problem.

If the machines detect something amiss, the bag triggers an alarm that alerts someone in the operation center. In many cases, they are able to inspect the bag remotely and clear it for loading just from an on-screen visual inspection, but if it needs a more thorough look, it gets routed to the secondary screening room instead.

The conveyor belts throughout the screening system only run as needed, unlike the older system with continuous-running belts. According to LaGuardia Gateway Partners, that results in a 37% energy savings compared to traditional systems.

Extra screening

Bags that get flagged for additional screening get to ride on LIDAR-equipped robots known as mobile inspection tables. They’re moved down a conveyor belt and automatically sent to an available TSA agent, who opens the bag and performs a more thorough inspection, then either clears it or pulls it aside as unsafe to travel.

Terminal B has 55 battery-operated mobile inspection tables, and they can navigate without any tracks and shuffle themselves around to ensure they’re all charged as needed.

When a TSA agent clears the bag, they will put one of those “your bag has been inspected” slips inside before sending it on its way.

The mobile inspection table then drops the bag back onto the belt so it can be loaded with the rest of the luggage.

Without the slips, most travelers would probably never know their bag had been pulled aside for extra screening, but Salgado said it’s always a good idea to follow TSA packing guidelines as closely as possible for a smooth trip.

“An alarmed bag has a higher chance of not making its flight,” he said.

Loading and unloading

Most bags make it through the screening system in about 10-15 minutes if they don’t need a second check or around 25 minutes if they do, Anthony Etergineoso, systems engineer for Oxford Airport Technical Services, the contractor that runs and maintains the system for LaGuardia Gateway Partners.

After all the inspections are complete, bags head into a garage-like space where they’re loaded onto the trucks that bring them out to departing planes.

The baggage system at Terminal B can handle more than 3,250 bags per hour or around 10,000-18,000 bags per day. 

Salgado said the machinery is highly efficient, and bags are most likely to have an issue during the loading or unloading process.

“It’s the human component,” he said. “It’s that manual interaction with the bag. Maybe they do a tight turn, the bag falls off the cart, and now it’s potentially lost.”

Airlines or their contractors are in charge of their baggage loading operation, so this is where luggage also physically changes hands from the airport’s systems back to the airline.

Bags are offloaded in the same room where they’re put onto carts and then sent up to baggage claim.

Baggage claim

Terminal B has nine common-use baggage claims and two oversized belts, giving the operation an extra layer of flexibility. 

According to Salgado, the whole baggage system is tested at 3:15 a.m. every morning before check-in opens at 3:30, and the terminal operators developed contingency plans for how to keep luggage moving if something goes wrong.

Aside from baggage handlers, most of the luggage movement is automated, and only a handful of people – and one tank full of fish – are working behind the scenes when things are running smoothly. 

What behind-the-scenes aspect of travel would you like to know more about?

Zach Wichter is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in New York. You can reach him at [email protected]

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