London Stansted Airport’s new £70m BHS became operational earlier this year, ahead of schedule and under budget. Steve Radford, head of baggage and security engineering, tells Tara Craig about it

Stansted’s new state-of-the-art baggage handling system (BHS) is the largest upgrade to the airport’s baggage network since the London terminal opened in 1991.

Head of baggage and security engineering Steve Radford explained that the airport embarked on a 25-year strategy on baggage in 2015, with the help of US firm BPI Associates. They looked at the airport’s operating profile and factors such as lack of space back of house. They then weighed up the pros and cons of traditional final sorters and independent carrier systems (ICS]), before opting for the latter – primarily, Radford said, for its extra scalability and flexibility.

“If you think that a [traditional] baggage sorter has a fixed number of trays – say, 500 – if you put a single bag on the sorter, 500 trays have to move. The system moves in the same way whether it is fully loaded or unloaded. With an ICS, when a bag is put into the system, only one part of that system needs to move,” he explained.

Stansted chose the autover, a modular system designed by German intralogistics systems specialist Beumer, that will enable the airport to add carts and even track as and when required.

“The custom-designed part of the system is the software. The rest of it is fairly off-the-shelf, so much so that the carts here look the same as those at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport or at Denver International Airport, as does the track. The main difference is that the software and configuration we have on-site is bespoke,” said Radford.

At 2.4km, Stansted’s new baggage handling system is the longest of its type in the world
All images: Stansted Airport
Steve Radford has been working at Stansted Airport since 19 90, originally as a technician on the then brand-new transit system

Everything apart from the screening machines was produced by Beumer. As part of the autover, Stansted also bought a suite of high-level control software, so the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system is a Beumer BG Fusion system and the SAC (sort allocation computer) system is a Beumer BG SAC system.

“It seemed like a good idea for us to put it all in the same suite, to give it that sort of silkiness on the interfaces. It also makes our support model going forward a lot simpler because now we have a onestop-shop in the Beumer Hot Line system. It gives us the opportunity to streamline some of their operating costs by having a single solution provider,” said Radford.

However, he is aware of the risks of putting all of the airport’s baggage eggs in one basket, adding that although the software is owned by Beumer, Stansted has put it into an escrow agreement.

"The custom-designed part of the system is the software. The rest of it is fairly off-the-shelf"

A modern system for modern baggage

Stansted’s legacy BHS was highly maintenance intensive, noted Radford. Crucially, it was designed for 1980s-type rigid cases, which has led to difficulties in recent years, with modern bags proving incompatible with the system. This meant that bags were falling off or getting caught between trays.

With the new system, “each bag is properly handled,” according to Radford: “We’re going from a conveyor to a conveyor interface, and each of the carts has its own onboard conveyor. When a bag is presented, it's transferred in the gentlest way possible. And with only one bag per cart, we can fully track every bag. We know where every bag is on the autover system at any time.”

Radford admitted that it’s difficult to articulate the new system’s benefits to passengers, but feels that it boils down to ensuring their luggage reaches the aircraft hold on time and in the same condition in which it was checked in.

The new system is also much more transparent than its predecessor, with 20 transactions per bag compared with three, making it always possible to pinpoint where a bag is. 

IATA Resolution 753 (on baggage tracking) is not a huge priority right now, but compliance is easily within grasp, according to Radford, should the airport decide to pursue it. Adding hand scanners at check-in and makeup points or installing a baggage reconciliation system is something that Stansted is considering and would make the airport 753-compliant.

Cleaner and greener

The autover system’s intelligence is in its carts. According to Radford, this means that “the track is just a track that contains an induction pad through which the carts are powered” and that each cart has its own proprietary Wi-Fi system, through which it communicates with the main control system. Crucially, this means that there is no longer a need to disassemble the moving parts when something goes wrong. Cart maintenance takes place in an offline maintenance area, and all the track requires is checking of safety devices and a monthly clean. A dedicated team of technicians maintains the 180 carts.

The new system is also more energy efficient than its predecessor. It complies with IEC Class 4 regulations and has several elements designed to save energy around the clock. “A good example is a cart that's not moving. It basically shuts everything down, apart from the on-board computer. When it's moving, it also manages its own power consumption,” explained Radford. “So there's no wasted movement or wasted energy from anything moving that doesn't need to move. On top of that, the system has an overall energy save mode, whereby as soon as a cart vacates a track area, the track switches off. We have 2.4km of track on two different loops. Even with all the carts moving at the same time, probably 40% of the track is unoccupied, so that remains in a switched-off state. This was another reason for choosing this system over other ICS options.” .

When the legacy baggage handling system was ripped out, Stansted opted to install a brand-new lighting grid at the same time. The baggage factory, as the airport refers to its BHS space, is now lit by LEDs, with a smart lighting system that varies the amount of light output depending on time of day.

Safe and secure

The upgraded baggage-handling system is on a new mezzanine deck in the baggage factory. This is a restricted area, meaning that, once checked into the autover system, all bags are in a completely secure environment. The hold baggage solution (HBS) screening also takes place in a restricted area, with CCTV to ensure that no bag tampering takes place. The system is enclosed within a cage and all baggage handling staff are required to undergo security checks.

“All staff working airside and in the baggage hall require a Counter Terrorist Check and DBS [Disclosure and Barring Service] criminal record check,” explained Radford.

“If we do encounter anything that looks suspicious, our screening contractor Mitie deals with the bag and the passenger to reconcile and remove anything that’s a security threat. If a bag has been tampered with, we can declare a security breach, although these are far and few between.”

Stansted also has a team of baggage delivery managers who make sure that everyone complies with the security rules – not only internal staff, but also thirdparty staff working in the baggage area.

Value for money

The new system was funded by MAG, its shareholders and investors. The £70m costs accounted for Stansted’s share of an overall MAG transformation plan. The airport initially intended to keep some of its legacy BHS equipment, but wrote a business paper in 2017 illustrating the benefits of carrying out a comprehensive upgrade as part of the transformation scheme.

Stansted opted to buy, rather than lease, the new baggage system. Asked about the benefits of buying something outright, Radford said: “If you're leasing something, you have to pay for it, whether you're using it or not. If you own it, you can just switch it off. And I think that's where the dividends have paid off.

The lack of flights during the COVID-19 shutdown enabled accelerated building of the new baggage system
Stansted’s new terminal building taking shape in 1989. The original baggage system was fitted at the same time
The autover carts from Beumer carry just one bag each, providing 100% accurate track-and-trace of baggage at every stage of the handling process
Stansted’s new baggage delivery chutes being installed

“There was quite a debate, probably two or three years ago, regarding the options between leasing and ownership. Leasing has its place with smaller equipment or if you want to keep up with the latest equipment, but I think the pandemic has shown that ownership is probably the best way for infrastructure.”

An unplanned soft opening

Much as airports debated leasing versus purchasing, so they also discussed how best to test baggage systems. Test bags are used initially, to get the basic configuration right and iron out some of the bigger bugs. However, according to Radford, airports disagree about whether to use live bags as well, as they provide a much better overall picture of how the system is going to operate and how resilient it is to abnormal operation.

The pandemic meant that Stansted did not have the option of using live bags in the run-up to the system’s launch. Instead, it worked with a set of 3,000 test bags that were recycled over and over again, five days a week, sometimes twice a day. “We managed to squeeze between 200,000 and 300,000 test bags through the system before the first opening, which was in early 2020. And then we did the same over the winter of 2021,” Radford recalled.

The pandemic also made a soft opening inevitable. The first live operation of the new system in June this year was with very, very low levels of volume, said Radford. The airport’s peak, in August, “was only really a 45% capacity based against 2019.”

“We’ve driven the system hard with test bags, but we haven't got to the stage now where we're driving the system hard with baggage f low,” he added. “At Stansted, our first wave is where we see the highest volume of traffic moves. Our current first waves are around 30% of the 2019 levels. So again, we're quite a way away from stress in the system, but we’ve done an immense amount of work with Beumer to optimise it.

“We’ve taken the opportunity of the lower throughput to really, really test the system’s resilience. We intentionally broke it, then measured the resilience – for instance, how quickly we could get it operational again and what capacity we had during the outage.”

Knowledge sharing

The downtime also provided opportunities to ensure that staff had the best possible training in the new system. Stansted sent its technical support team to Beumer for in-depth training, before developing its own in-house programme and setting up a maintenance skills curriculum and a licence to operate. Training resources are on a digital platform, meaning that staff can access them while they are on the night shift, for instance, and things are quiet. Training videos have been made and staff undertake refresher courses on a six-monthly basis.

While Radford is delighted with the quality of the training and how staff have responded to it, he added: “The only thing we did underestimate was the actual vastness of the changes. There was nothing of any sophistication within the legacy systems. However, our new system is straightforward in how it operates, but its technology is complex. It took the team a little bit of time to get used to the new operating system and carts, and it took the technicians a little while to get their heads around the idea of recovering the system rather than fixing it.”

The new baggage system sits within a cage, part of the airport’s security efforts to ensure that no bags can be tampered with

Low traffic meant the airport was well-placed to devote more time to staff training, giving them confidence in using the new system. “We do get the occasional hiccup, but with our training and mentor support systems, we iron out these glitches pretty quickly,” Radford said.

The modular nature of the autover system means elements can be added as and when passenger numbers grow

Silver linings

Radford admitted that the silver lining to the COVID-19 cloud was that the lockdown gave the team behind the new baggage system unfettered access to the airport. He explained: “In 2019, we were planning to allow Beumer to install the system at specific times, moving the operational risk and using contingency and mitigation measures to keep the operation going. That meant Beumer was only going to have access for around 11 hours a day.

“Then suddenly the pandemic came along and Beumer had 24/7 access. It added a night shift and worked seven days a week. And we've finished probably six months earlier than we would have done without the pandemic. So yes, it was one of those ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ moments.” While the sudden halting of passenger flights may have helped the project, there is no doubt in Radford’s mind that its success was to a large degree due to the people behind both the Stansted and Beumer teams. “I was blessed with the team that executed the project. We got the right people together and it was a huge team effort between us and the supplier. We pulled it off. For me, that’s something to be proud of,” he concluded.