What Happens After You Check Your Bag

Yesterday, I attended the official launch of a new inline baggage screening system in Delta’s Terminal 5 at LAX. After taking the tour, it dawned on me that a lot of people probably don’t know what happens to their bags after they kiss them goodbye. So, let’s talk about it.

But first, let’s talk about what inline baggage screening is. You know when you go to a ticket counter, check bags, and then find out you have to drag your bags over to another place where they’ll screen them? That’s the old-school stopgap way of handling screening. Once the rules came out requiring 100 percent screening of all passenger bags, airports had to figure out how to shoehorn these massive machines into the existing baggage systems which were in no way designed for them. The easiest way was to simply plop a machine down in the ticketing lobby and make everyone drop their bags there. Then the bags would enter the system. This sucks for three big reasons.

  1. Those machines take up a lot of space and make for some cramped quarters in an already crowded ticketing area.
  2. It’s a real pain to drag your bags from the ticket counter back to the scanning machines and then wait in another line if a lot of people are there.
  3. It’s a really slow process to do it all manually.

As you can see below, the first and second problems are solved with inline bag screening. This view of Delta’s ticket counter at LAX was cluttered with CTX screening machines and now it’s much more open.

Delta Ticket Counter LAX

For those reasons, many airports have gone toward inline baggage scanning systems. These systems have traditionally been installed into the existing baggage system. So they shut down the system, stick some machines in there and then turn things back on. You might think this sounds easy, but it’s painful. These are usually pretty expensive and can take a couple years to install. This new system that was designed by Siemens acts a bit differently.

Instead of sticking the system into the existing framework, they build a new structure that contains all the bag screening equipment. Then they just divert the bags from the existing system into the new one for screening and then it goes right back into the existing system. In this case, they say it’s half the price of another system (this was $30 million) and it took “only” nine months. If you notice a new bulge on top of Delta’s Terminal 5 at LAX, that’s the new system. They just built it on top of the existing structure. At right in the picture below, you can see the ramp that was built to connect the existing systems to the new screening area.

Delta New LAX Bag Screening

Now, what happens to your bag? When you check it, the bag runs down belts into the baggage system. The first stop is the big CTX screening machines. There are four of these in Delta’s terminal at LAX. Once in the machine, a decision is made on whether there’s something potentially harmful in the bag or not using automation. If it’s not deemed harmful, the bag moves along. If there is a red flag, then the image is thrown up on a screen where a TSA agent decides whether or not it’s actually a threat. If there’s any question about it, the bag is sent to a TSA agent for a search.

After the security work is done, the bag goes back into the baggage system where it is then sorted so that it goes to the correct flight. In more sophisticated systems, there are a number of scanners that look at the bag tags and automatically decide at which gate the bag needs to be. I’m told they have over a 90 percent success rate in this terminal when it comes to reading the tags in Terminal 5 at LAX. Other places have a manual process for getting bags to the right airplane. Once at the gate, it’s loaded on the airplane and then it joins you on the flight to wherever you’re headed.

This sounds pretty easy, but there are a million exceptions. Oversized bags don’t fit on the belts, so they have a different process. Then, of course, there are connecting bags from Delta and from other airlines. Add mail and cargo to the mix and you’ve got a incredibly complex system.

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