Data Driven Customer Service in Baggage Handling – Friday in the Field

Bob Pollard
I sat down with Marketing Coordinator Keelin Cox to discuss my experience in the aviation industry, particularly in baggage handling and how advancements in both construction technology and customer service are improving the traveler experience.

Keelin Cox: Hi Bob! Thank you for sitting down with me today.

It’s my pleasure.

KC: Tell me about your current role with Faithful+Gould. What are you working on right now?

I am a program director with Faithful+Gould working in our Aviation Sector, specifically in the Baggage Handling Systems and Services (BHS) subsector. Right now, I am working on a full terminal renewal and improvement program for one of our key clients in the industry. My role here is to have oversight of the design team and the Construction Manager at Risk (CMAR) construction team handling risk, making sure the project is completed in a timely fashion, on or under budget.

It’s an exciting time for BHS projects, with over a billion dollars of work occurring across the nation’s airports...

It’s an exciting time for BHS projects, with over a billion dollars of work occurring across the nation’s airports to refurbish and replace existing antiquated equipment and install new systems.

KC: What’s driving that?

There is a cycle of renovations that goes on in the aviation industry, which we are seeing in these airport terminals in regards to baggage handling. For instance, across the U.S. we have systems that are being modified because the technology is 12 years old, or rather was commissioned 12 years ago. In the wake of 9/11, there was a demand for all airports to electronically screen all checked bags by the end of 2002, per the Aviation Transportation Security Act. I saw this first hand while providing oversight on a team that worked to make sure this was accomplished in that one year. Three years after that, we started installing in-line automated screening systems: large, explosive detection systems where bags can be screened through what is essentially an MRI machine. Now that those machines are coming to the end of their useful life, there is a movement to bring them up to the latest technology so that they are as efficient as possible and comply with Transportation Security Administration (TSA) requirements.

KC: Is that what you’re doing in your current project?

Yes, essentially. We’re replacing older equipment and upgrading software in three different terminals. We are not only aiming to put these systems in, but we want to leave our clients with the tools to be able to operate and maintain them for the life of the baggage systems, ensuring they have the asset management information available to perform repairs. These are living systems that influence the experience of everyone who walks through the doors of the airport.

KC: You seem to have extensive experience in BHS. Have you always been focused on this area of the aviation industry?

Yes, for more than 35 years and most of my career. Back in 1982, I worked as a project engineer for a large automated baggage handling company I moved from there to the project management side of the industry in 1986. In 2000, I started working as a consultant to the airlines and airports. I joined Faithful+Gould about four years ago, after working with Senior Vice President Tom Jaske on a project at John F. Kennedy International Airport. I’ve been with Faithful+Gould ever since; working to develop our BHS offering through a wide variety of projects.

KC: I didn't realize how many different capacities you've worked in, all focused on BHS. Do you think working in these various capacities has helped your view of how baggage handling works?

Definitely. Due to my experience running the gamut of roles in these kind of projects, I understand the full flow of a project, from planning and design, to project management installation, commissioning, testing, closeout and everything in between. I know what it takes deliver the project to the owner because I’ve been in their shoes.

I think it is important for anyone working in BHS projects to have a traveler’s mindset.

With that in mind, I should credit some of my expertise to my experience as a consumer. I am a pretty avid traveler, both with my family and as part of my work, which has taken me to project sites across the U.S., as well as England, Norway, Germany, Israel, China, even as far as Australia. I think it is important for anyone working in BHS projects to have a traveler’s mindset.

KC: How do you mean?

BHS, by nature, is all about the consumer - ensuring that bags are collected efficiently, delivered safely and put back in the hands of their owners with as little aggravation as possible. It’s important that we understand exactly what is concerning travelers when checking their bags and where there is room for improvement. Just as we have a responsibility to the owner to keep the project on schedule and cut down costs, they have a responsibility to their customers to address these concerns. After all, if you’ve ever had to wait around for a bag or worse, lost yours in transit, you know how that can ruin your experience with a given airport.

KC: I think that’s close to the heart of anyone who has ever traveled.

Exactly. Therefore, effective construction planning in regards to BHS is focused on improving customer service to the airlines and airports while driving down the total cost of ownership of baggage systems through innovation and technology. This in turn allows the airports to improve their customer service once they are operational.

KC: How is this done?

One tool that helps to do both is Building Information Model (BIM). BIM is an intelligent design planning tool that combines 3D visualizations with technical specifications. In BIM, a model of a facility is created and then loaded with meticulous data. Doing this allows the various design teams (structural, mechanical, architectural, etc.) to coordinate their plans and address any issues prior to starting work in the field. This approach saves time and drives down the cost of the projects by minimizing the need for redesign and change orders during construction. This has been a major element of our work behind the scenes.

Therefore, effective construction planning in regards to BHS is focused on improving customer service to the airlines and airports...

That said, travelers don’t see what’s happening in the back of the house. They want to know how it affects them as a passenger. While BIM helps to perfect technology during construction, for travelers the biggest stress point is letting go of personal possessions and not knowing how long you’re going to wait to get them back. There have been great strides in technology in this regard, allowing for travelers to track bags from drop off to pick up. It's not 100% real time but it’s getting close. Depending on the airline, you can log on and see if your bag is going to make it to the baggage claim. These innovations seriously cut down on anxiety for travelers. Even if they must wait, being able to let them know the wait time can make the experience much more bearable.

KC: That makes sense. There seems to be a continuing movement for customer service in general to automate the entire check in process.

Well yes, automation is key but I’m speaking to the BHS side. Automated checking in for travelers is a tricky subject. You’ll see that more abroad. Right now, in the U.S., TSA regulations dictate that physical IDs must be verified in person, whereas overseas there are lighter regulations that allow for a different type of verification with respect to who has a boarding pass and who's checking bags.

KC: Interesting. With our regulations, how can the U.S. compete with airports overseas that don't have the same regulations?

This is why BHS system improvements are so important, we may not be able to change the physical passenger check in process, but we can streamline other elements. The move across the world is to allow for self-service once you get past the screening, and empowering the passenger with more real time information through technology such as smart phones.

KC: Are you working to drive this in your current project?

Absolutely. At the end of this project, our client will have innovative ideas for passenger processing and systems that can adapt to rapid changes in technology and customer service requirements. In doing this, we ensure that the airport is sustainable for decades to come, while enhancing the overall customer experience.

KC: What do you see for the future of BHS? Say, in the next five years. What are you hoping to see change or grow, and how can we drive that kind of growth?

Two things. One is driving down the costs of projects by effectively using BIM. In my current project, for instance, we’ve been utilizing this method through coordination meetings and weekly construction walks with field inspectors, which are key to preserving the baggage system rights of way through existing terminals undergoing renovations. The other is in increasing airport owners’ ability to provide customer service to travelers through systems that are designed to empower travelers with up to date information in real time. We’ve seen this increasing throughout the BHS industry and expect it to continue to grow as the standard for travel. These will both be major elements in the future of BHS as we work to make the system as efficient as possible for both travelers and owners alike.

Written by